The Manga Revue: Brave Dan and FukuFuku: Kitten Tales

Do you own a cat tea cosy? Is there an enormous feline jungle gym in your living room? Have you lost entire afternoons to watching YouTube videos of cats opening doors, playing pianos, and riding Roombas? If you answered “yes” to at least one of the following questions, this week’s column is for you, as I’ll be reviewing two cat-centric comics: Osamu Tezuka’s Brave Dan–a boy-and-his-tiger story–and Kanata Konami’s FukuFuku: Kitten Tales–a manga about cats doing normal cat things.

brave_danBrave Dan
By Osamu Tezuka
Rated Teen, for readers 13 and up
Digital Manga Publishers, Inc., $15.95

Brave Dan begins as a rollicking adventure: Kotan, an orphaned Ainu boy, befriends Dan, a “man-eating” tiger, and embarks on a quest with him to find a valuable treasure. The pair dodges bullets, escapes from a helicopter, and tangles with guardian spirits in their search for the tomb of an ancient Ainu warrior. As the story enters its final act, however, a darker subplot emerges, one in which Dan is forced to confront the wisdom of associating with humans.

Though Tezuka makes frequent reference to Kotan’s Ainu heritage, this plot strand is more window dressing than serious thematic element; Kamuiroji’s tomb looks more like a set from a Flash Gordon or Tarzan serial than an authentic expression of Ainu culture. (Granted, it’s a pretty nifty tomb; Indiana Jones would have had a field day exploring it.) Tezuka is on firmer ground when staging a chase or a fight. In one memorable scene, for example, Dan plunges into a lake to save Kotan from an enormous spider-demon. Tezuka captures the fluidity and speed of Dan’s attacks with a few carefully chosen “snapshots” of him tumbling and twisting in the water, struggling to crush the monster with his paws. Small details–such as the trail of bubbles from each of Dan’s legs–remind us that in this underwater setting, Dan has a fleeting window of opportunity to save his friend. By the time that he and Kotan burst to the lake’s surface, we’re gasping for air, too–a testament to Tezuka’s ability to transport the reader to the scene of the action.

Tezuka’s artwork also plays an important role in garnering sympathy for Dan, establishing the tiger’s bravery, intelligence, and unwavering loyalty to Kotan. Though Tezuka can’t resist some ham-fisted touches–Dan actually shakes his paw at the sky in one scene–Dan’s essential tigerness is never compromised. The emphasis on Dan’s animal nature reminds us that his friendship with Kotan can only exist apart from human society; kind and smart as Dan may be, adults perceive him as a threat, to be killed or contained in a zoo.

The bottom line: If you still bear scars from reading The Yearling and Old Yeller, be warned: Dan is as doomed as those other noble animal protagonists. Less sensitive souls, however, can enjoy Brave Dan as both a gonzo adventure story and a meditation on the perils of interspecies friendships. Recommended for readers ten and up.

Fuku Fuku Kitten TalesFukuFuku: Kitten Tales, Vol. 1
By Kanata Konami
All Ages
Vertical Comics, $10.95

FukuFuku: Kitten Tales is perfectly calibrated to elicit an “awwww” and a chuckle on every page. The title character–a spunky calico–does predictably cute things: she falls asleep in odd places, escapes from a sudsy bath, plays with her food, and snatches a fish from the table. Unlike Chi, star of Konami’s other hit manga, FukuFuku doesn’t voice her thoughts about her new owner, or the strangeness of her new surroundings; she simply does what she pleases. Konami’s minimalist artwork captures the nuances of FukuFuku’s moods surprisingly well, however, as Konami bends and stretches the kitten’s moon-shaped face into an astonishing range of smiles, scowls, and grimaces. Absent a plot or a deeper sense of how FukuFuku sees her world, the story hits fewer emotional notes than Chi’s Sweet Home, focusing almost exclusively on the kind of ordinary cat behavior that’s been documented copiously on YouTube. You may find that the vignettes–charming as they are–have a sameness about them that prevents them from being genuinely funny or surprising.

The bottom line: As with Chi’s Sweet Home, Konami demonstrates a talent for drawing winsome kitties doing winsome things. She’s also cornered the market on disdainful feline reaction shots.

Reviews: ANN columnist Rebecca Silverman posts an early review of Inio Asano’s critically lauded drama Goodnight Pun-Pun, while Seth Hahne, host of Good OK Bad, tackles another Asano work: A Girl on the Shore.

Mark Pelligrini on vol. 3 of AKIRA (AiPT!)
Sean Gaffney on vol. 7 of Blood Lad (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
Adrienne on vol. 1 of Bloody Mary (Heart of Manga)
Sean Gaffney on The Boy and the Beast (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
Julie on The Cinderella Solution (Manga Maniac Cafe)
Julie on Crowns and a Cradle (Manga Maniac Cafe)
ebooksgirl on vol. 1 of FukuFuku: Kitten Tales (Geek Lit Etc.)
Karen Maeda on vol. 1 of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Part 2: Battle Tendency (Sequential Tart)
Wolfen Moondaughter on vol. 23 of Kimi ni Todoke: From Me to You (Sequential Tart)
Nick Creamer on vol. 3 of My Hero Academia (Anime News Network)
David Brooke on vol. 5 of One-Punch Man (AiPT!)
Ash Brown on vol. 1 of Persona 4 (Experiments in Manga)
Jordan Richards on vol. 1 of Pokemon Adventures (AiPT!)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 2 of QQ Sweeper (Sequential Tart)
Wolfen Moondaughter on vol. 1 of Gakyuu Hotei: School Judgment (Sequential Tart)
Rebecca Silverman on vol. 3 of Umineko When They Cry Episode 5: End of the Golden Witch (Anime News Network)
Austin Lanari on issue no. 13 of Weekly Shonen Jump (Comic Bastards)

The Manga Revue: Handa-Kun

VIZ isn’t the only manga publisher experimenting with digital-first releases; Yen Press has also rolled out new titles in digital form before introducing print editions. One of the latest Yen titles to make the leap from web to page is Handa-kun, Satsuki Yoshino’s comedy about a talented teen calligrapher. If the premise sounds familiar, that’s because the title character also stars in Yoshino’s later series Barakamon–which begs the question, is Handa-kun just for fans, or will it appeal to the uninitiated? Read on for my verdict.

handakunHanda-kun, Vol. 1
By Satsuki Yoshino
Rated T, for teens
Yen Press, $15.00

By the time we meet Sei Handa in the first pages of Barakamon, he’s a twenty-something jerk who bristles at criticism, resents authority, and resists overtures of friendship. The tenth-grader we meet in Handa-kun isn’t as curmudgeonly, but he has a problem: he constantly misreads other people’s motives, whether he’s interpreting a love letter as a threat or perceiving a job offer as a “shady” attempt to unload stolen clothing. For all his weirdness, however, Handa’s classmates worship him, viewing his odd behavior and sharp calligraphy skills as proof of his coolness.

Author Satsuki Yoshino wrings a surprising number of laughs from this simple premise by populating the story with a large, boisterous cast of supporting players. Though the outcome of every chapter is the same–female suitors and male rivals alike profess their sincere admiration for Handa–the path to each character’s epiphany takes unexpected turns. Yoshino complements these humorous soliloquies with expressive, elastic artwork that sells us on the characters’ transformations.

In the volume’s best chapter, for example, Yoshino pits Handa against a bespectacled nerd named Juniichi. Juniichi’s entire self-image is rooted in his years of service as class representative–that is, until one of his peers nominates Handa for the honor. Yoshino makes us feel and smell Juniichi’s desperation by showing us how Juniichi sweats, grimaces, and paces his way through the vote-counting process, flagging or rallying with each ballot. By chapter’s end, Juniichi’s cheerful declaration that “Right now, I feel the best I have ever felt in my life” seems like the natural culmination of this fraught emotional journey–even though, of course, his feeling is rooted in a false sense of Handa’s moral rectitude.

My primary concern about Handa-kun is that the series will overstay its welcome. Handa seems fundamentally unable to learn from his interactions with peers, and his classmates seem just as clueless in their blind adoration of him. If Yoshino doesn’t take steps to change this dynamic–perhaps by introducing a character who is genuinely unimpressed with Handa–the series risks settling into a predictable routine. For a few volumes, however, the current set-up will do just fine, offering the same brand of off-kilter humor as Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto.

The bottom line: The first volume is funny enough to appeal to newbies and die-hard Barakamon fans.

Reviews: Megan R. jumps in the WABAC machine for a close look at two BL titles from the mid-00s: Brother (originally published by Drama Queen) and Love Pistols (originally published by BLU Manga). At The OASG, Justin Stroman convenes a round table discussion of Kentaro Miura’s Giganto Maxima.

Theron Martin on vol. 1 of Angel Beats!: Heaven’s Door (Anime News Network)
Matt on vol. 1 of Die Wergelder (Ani-TAY)
Matt on vol. 1 of Dimension W (Ani-TAY)
Julie on vol. 1 of FukuFuku: Kitten Tales (Manga Maniac Cafe)
Helen on vol. 1 of Ga-Rei (The OASG)
Sarah on vols. 2-3 of Kiss Him, Not Me! (Anime UK News)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 8 of Kiss of the Rose Princess (Sequential Tart)
Karen Maeda on vol. 3 of Komomo Confiserie (Sequential Tart)
Terry Hong on vol. 5 of Master Keaton (Book Dragon)
Ken H. on vol. 7 of Noragami (Sequential Ink)
SKJAM! on vols. 10-11 of Ooku: The Inner Chambers (SKJAM! Reviews)
Plutoburns on Parasistence Sana (Plutoburns)*
Marissa Lieberman on vol. 1 of School-Live! (No Flying No Tights)
Matt on vol. 2 of School-Live! (Ani-TAY)
Kane Bugeja on vol. 7 of Seraph of the End (Snap 30)
Sarah on vol. 4 of Servamp (Anime UK News)
Rebecca Silverman on vol. 1 of Taboo Tattoo (Anime News Network)
Nic Creamer on vol. 3 of UQ Holder! (Anime News Network)
Michael Burns on vols. 5-6 of Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches (Ani-TAY)

* Denotes a video review

The Manga Revue: Behind the Scenes!!

It’s a snowy day here in Boston, giving me the perfect excuse to tunnel under a blanket and read a goofy, light-hearted story. My escapism of choice: Bisco Hatori’s latest series, Ouran University Host Club Behind the Scenes!!

BehindTheScenes-01Behind the Scenes!!, Vol. 1
By Bisco Hatori
Rated T, for teens
VIZ Media, $9.99

Behind the Scenes!! embodies what’s good–and not so good–about Bisco Hatori’s storytelling.

In the plus column, Hatori has a knack for writing ensemble pieces in which the principal characters exhibit a genuine fondness for one another. The stars of her latest series are Shichikoku University’s Art Squad, a scrappy outfit that makes props for the Film Club–or, more accurately, clubs, as there are several students groups competing for the Art Squad’s services, each with their own aesthetic objectives. Ranmaru, the series’ protagonist, gets a crash course in film making when he stumbles into the middle of an Art Squad project: a low-budget horror flick. As penance for disrupting the shoot, Ranmaru joins the Art Squad and is quickly pressed into service painting props, folding paper cranes, and building a fake hot spring.

These scenes–in which Ranmaru and the gang tackle set-design challenges–are among the series’ most enjoyable. Not only do they give us a sneak peek at the movie-making process, they also show us how the club members’ friendly overtures embolden the timid, self-doubting Ranmaru to let go of his painful childhood and become part of a community. In one exchange, for example, Ranmaru tells a fellow squad member about a black-and-white film that made a powerful impression on him. Hatori cuts between scenes from this imaginary film and Ranmaru’s face, registering how powerfully Ranmaru identified with the film’s principal character, a toy robot who dreams of flying. The symbolism of the toy is hard to miss, but the directness and simplicity with which Hatori stages the moment leavens the breezy tone with a note of poignancy.

In the minus column, Hatori often strains for comic effect, overwhelming the reader with too many shots of characters mugging, shouting, and flapping their arms. The Art Squad’s interactions with various student directors give Hatori license to indulge this tendency; the auteurs’ snits and whims frequently force the Art Squad members to behave more like the Scooby Doo gang–or Hollywood fixers–than actual college students juggling coursework and extra-curriculars. (The Art Squad even has a goofy dog mascot.)

At the same time, however, these wannabe Spielbergs bring out the best in Hatori’s draftsmanship. Each one’s personality is firmly established in just a single panel: one looks like a refugee from Swingin’ London (or perhaps an Austin Powers film); another dresses like a Taisho-era author, swanning around campus in a yukata; and a third sports a shaggy mane, Buddy Holly glasses, and a female entourage. The efficiency with which Hatori introduces these characters, and the range of personalities they embody, demonstrate just how crisp and distinctive her artwork can be. That Hatori’s heroes are visually bland by comparison says less about her skills, I think, than it does her desire to make Ranmaru’s new “family” seem normal–well, as normal as anyone who specializes in making fake zombie guts can be.

The bottom line: Tentatively recommended. If Hatori can tone down her characters’ antic behavior, Behind the Scenes!! could be a winner.

Reviews: Sean Gaffney and Michelle Smith post a fresh crop of Bookshelf Briefs. Also new at Manga Bookshelf: Sean tackles the first volume of orange (no, that’s not a typo), Anna N. reviews Takeshi Obata’s kiddie-thriller School Judgment, and Ash Brown weighs in on Hiroaki Samura’s stylish (and bloody) manga Die Wergelder. Further afield, translator Jocelyn Allen posts her annual doujinshi round-up.

Sara Dempster on The Angel of Elhamburg (No Flying No Tights)
Matthew Warner on vol. 5 of Ani-Emo (The Fandom Post)
Michael Burns on vols. 7-8 of Barakamon (AniTAY)
Johanna Draper Carlson on vol. 12 of Chi’s Sweet Home (Comics Worth Reading)
Adam Brunell on vol. 12 of Deadman Wonderland (ComicSpectrum)
SKJAM! on Dream Fossil (SKJAM! Reviews)
Josh Begley on vol. 2 of Emma (The Fandom Post)
Patrick Moore on vol. 1 of Honey So Sweet (Bentobyte)
Sean Gaffney on vol. 1 of How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
Ken H. on Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu (Sequential Ink)
Kory Cerjak on vol. 13 of Magi (The Fandom Post)
Megan R. on Millennium Prime Minister (The Manga Test Drive)
Rebecca Silverman on vol. 12 of My Little Monster (Anime News Network)
Exile on vol. 1 of My Monster Secret (AniTAY)
Jocelyn Allen on Night Worker (Brain vs. Book)
Matthew Warner on vol. 2 of Puella Magi Tart Magica (The Fandom Post)
Matt on vol. 5 of A Silent Voice (AniTAY)
Terry Hong on vol. 2 of Ultraman (Book Dragon)
Nick Creamer on vol. 2 of UQ Holder! (Anime News Network)
Frank Inglese on Uzumaki Naruto: Illustrations (Snap 30)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 3 of Yo-Kai Watch (Sequential Tart)

 

 

The Manga Revue: Giganto Maxia

Kentaro Miura’s Berserk is a rite of passage for manga readers: you may not have soldiered past the second volume, but you tried because a Real Manga Fan told you that it was The Most Amazing Manga Ever. I freely admit that I didn’t finish Berserk–too violent for me, I’m afraid–but I marveled at its intricate plotting, feverish pace, and deadly seriousness. (Also: Miura’s penchant for awful names.) When Dark Horse announced that it had acquired Giganto Maxia, I decided to treat this new series as a second “date” with Miura–a chance to decide if I’d judged his work unfairly the first time around. Here’s how that date went.

giganto_maxiaGiganto Maxia
By Kentaro Miura
Rated 16+, for older teens
Dark Horse, $13.99

Let’s start with the good: Giganto Maxia is a visual feast that’s every bit as imaginative as Hayao Mizayaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Kentaro Miura’s pages abound in war-ravaged landscapes, fantastic fighting machines, and bizarre creatures that straddle the fence between human and animal. The specificity of his vision, and the care with which he stages battle scenes, obviates the need for dialogue; we can almost hear and feel what the characters are experiencing on every page.

Miura’s script, however, is as tin-eared and self-serious as a high school literary rag. The two leads–Prome, a pale mystic who looks like a young girl, and Delos, a warrior slave–spend an inordinate amount of time describing what’s happening around them, even when the pictures make it abundantly clear. Yet for all their chatter, neither character provides much useful information about the post-apocalyptic world in which Giganto Maxia takes place: who are the Olympians? Why are they so intent on annihilating other tribes? And what, exactly, are the Giganto? The absence of these details leaves a big hole in the story: the characters’ motivation for fighting the Giganto. At the end of the volume, we’re not really sure what Prome and Delos stand for, or what’s at stake if they fail–two fatal flaws in a series that desperately wants the reader to get swept up in their quest.

The bottom line: A talky script and barely-there characters sink this smart-looking fantasy series.

The publisher provided a review copy.

Reviews: Sean Gaffney and Michelle Smith round up the latest volumes of Arpeggio of Blue Steel, Kimi ni Todoke, and Non Non Biyori at Manga Bookshelf; Sean also reads The Testament of New Sister Devil so that you don’t have to. Over at Women Write About Comics, Amanda Vail and Paige Sammartino offer “short & sweet” reviews of Barakamon, Are You Alice?, and My Hero Academia.

Nick Creamer on vol. 3 of The Ancient Magus’ Bride (Anime News Network)
Gary Thompson on vol. 10 of Black Jack (The Fandom Post)
Demelza on Fairy Tail (Anime UK News)
Megan R. on Gate 7 (The Manga Test Drive)
Nick Creamer on vol. 7 of Genshiken: Second Season (Anime News Network)
Sean Rogers on A Girl on the Shore (The Globe and Mail)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 1 of Honey So Sweet (Sequential Tart)
Rebecca Silverman on vol. 1 of Honey So Sweet (Anime News Network)
Matt on vol. 2 of Inuyashiki (AniTAY)
Sean Gaffney on Kagerou Daze III: The Children Reason (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
Claire Napier on Memoirs of Amorous Gentlemen (Comics Alliance)
Michael Burns on vol. 13 of Nisekoi (AniTAY)
Matthew Warner on vol. 76 of One Piece (The Fandom Post)
Matthew Warner on vol. 3 of One-Punch Man (The Fandom Post)
Rebecca Silverman on vol. 4 of One-Punch Man (Anime News Network)
Matthew Warner on vol. 3 of Peepo Choo (The Fandom Post)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 5 of Pokemon X.Y. (Sequential Tart)
Helen on vol. 1 of ReLife (The OASG)
Matt on vol. 4 of A Silent Voice (AniTAY)
Saeyong Kim on vol. 3 of Thermae Romae (No Flying No Tights)
Sarah on Tsubasa WoRLD CHRoNiCLE: Niraikani (Anime UK News)
Charlotte Finn on Wandering Son (Comics Alliance)

 

 

The Manga Revue: Idol Dreams and Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-Kun

Happy New Year! (Is it too late to extend that greeting to readers?) For my first column of 2016, I dove into my pile of unread books and chose two that I’d meant to review last year. The first is Arina Tanemura’s Idol Dreams, a body-swap comedy about a thirty-something office lady; the second is Izumi Tsubaki’s Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-Kun, a 4-koma series about a hunky high school manga artist who just happens to be the author of a popular girls’ comic.

idol-dreams-vol-1Idol Dreams, Vol. 1
By Arina Tanemura
Rated T, for readers 13 and up
VIZ Media, $9.99

Chikage Deguchi is at a crossroads: once a pretty, popular high school student, she’s become a sexless, thirty-something office drone who’s mocked by her co-workers. After making a fool of herself at a high school reunion, Chikage’s childhood friend Tokita stages a unique intervention, offering Chikage a drug that transforms her into a 15-year-old girl for a few hours a day. Chikage then does what any self-respecting 31-year-old would do: she pursues a (part-time) career as a teen idol.

Setting aside the question of whether anyone would voluntarily relive their teenage years, Idol Dreams has a bigger problem: tone. Arina Tanemura can’t decide if her story will revel in its absurdity or play things straight, and veers wildly between wacky show-biz hijinks and clumsy office scenes that are meant to establish just how awful Chikage’s adult life is. In the afterword to the story, Tanemura cheerfully vents her frustrations at being asked to do “a magical girl series for adults” without recourse to “too much screentone,” “gags and comedic touches,” or “super-stylish atmosphere.” Oddly enough, I don’t think these restrictions are the true source of the problem; if anything, Tanemura’s artwork is more polished and appealing in Idol Dreams than in Phantom Thief Jeanne or I.O.N. The real issue is the lead character: Tanemura never really explains why temporarily impersonating a 15-year-old would solve any of Chikage’s issues, especially since Chikage’s teenage alter ego is a wet noodle, too. The underlying message seems to be that recapturing youthful beauty is a pathway to empowerment–not a particularly novel or uplifting idea, given the developed world’s obsession with Botox, face lifts, wrinkle cream, and 17-year-old models.

The bottom line: I never thought I’d say this, but Idol Dreams is the rare Tanemura manga that would benefit from more zaniness and sparkly backgrounds.


monthly_girlsMonthly Girls’ Nozaki-Kun
, Vol. 1
By Izumi Tsubaki
Rated T, for teen readers
Yen Press, $13.00

Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-Kun is a textbook example of what happens when a great idea bumps up against the limitations of a restrictive format. The set-up is comedy gold: tenth-grader Chiyo Sakura confesses her romantic feelings to hunky classmate Umetarou Nozaki, only to have him casually respond, “Do you want to come to my place right now?” Flustered, Chiyo agrees but is surprised when Nozaki doesn’t put the moves on her; instead, he puts her to work on a chapter of his hit shojo manga Let’s Fall. Chiyo’s attempts to extricate herself from Nozaki’s employ or clarify her feelings for him only make things worse, as Nozaki is both romantically inexperienced and genuinely obtuse.

So far, so good: the concept provides plenty of fodder for jokes and pratfalls. The four-panel format, however, locks each character into a holding pattern in which he or she is doomed to repeat the same behavior over and over again. The supporting cast is big enough to prevent Monthly Girls from reading like a month’s worth of Cathy or Garfield strips, but the rhythm of every gag is virtually the same, whether author Izumi Tsubaki is introducing a new character, poking fun at shojo manga cliches, or demonstrating just how socially inept Nozaki really is; long stretches of Monthly Girls read like a Henny Youngman set, albeit with stranger–and funnier–material. Take my manga… please!

The bottom line: Some of the jokes are genuinely funny, but the series already feels like it’s chasing its tail by the end of chapter three.

Odds and Ends: Organization Anti-Social Geniuses has a new look, a new name, and a new URL. You’ll now find Justin Stroman and the gang at http://www.theoasg.com/. Manga vlogger Pluto Burns took a break from reviewing books and conducted a great interview with Carolina Manga Library founder Laura Mehaffey. If you’re not familiar with the good work that Mehaffey and her staff are doing, click here to learn more about this traveling book collection.

Reviews: Sean Gaffney, Anna N. and Michelle Smith post their first Bookshelf Briefs column of 2016. On the agenda: D-Frag!, My Love Story!!, Pandora Hearts, and Saki. Elsewhere on the web, Rebecca Silverman and Kory Cerjak review the first volume of Yowamushi Pedal, my pick for Best New Manga of 2015.

Chris Kirby on vol. 1 of 7 Billion Needles (The Fandom Post)
Karen Maeda on vol. 7 of Assassination Classroom (Sequential Tart)
Matthew Warner on Ayako (The Fandom Post)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 1 of Bloody Mary (Sequential Tart)
Megan R. on CLAMP School Detectives (The Manga Test Drive)
Justin on Confession (The OASG)
Kate O’Neil on vol. 5 of Demon from Afar (The Fandom Post)
Sean Gaffney on vol. 3 of Emma (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
Sean Gaffney on vol. 1 of Honey So Sweet (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
Ash Brown on vol. 3 of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Part 1: Phantom Blood (Experiments in Manga)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 19 of Kamisama Kiss (Sequential Tart)
Ken H on vol. 1 of LD♥K (Sequential Ink)
Rebecca Silverman on vol. 1 of Livingstone (Anime News Network)
Lori Henderson on vol. 1 of Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-Kun (Manga Xanadu)
Dustin Cabeal on vol. 2 of My Hero Academia (Comic Bastards)
Sean Gaffney on vol. 1 of Of the Red, the Light, and the Ayakashi (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
Kane Bugeja on vol. 3 of One-Punch Man (Snap 30)
David Brooke on vol. 4 of One-Punch Man (AiPT!)
Dustin Cabeal on vol. 4 of One-Punch Man (Comic Bastards)
SKJAM! on vol. 18 of Rin-ne (SKJAM! Reviews)
Ken H. on vol. 9 of Say I Love You (Sequential Ink)
Helen on vol. 1 of Student Council’s Discretion (The OASG)
Patrick Moore on vol. 8 of Tiger & Bunny (Bento Byte)
Che Gilson on Tokyo Ghoul (Otaku USA)
Marion Olea on vol. 2 of Tokyo Ghoul (No Flying No Tights)
Frank Inglese on vols. 8-9 of Vagabond: VIZBIG Edition (Snap 30)
Ash Brown on vol. 7 of Vinland Saga (Experiments in Manga)
SKJAM! on vol. 7 of Vinland Saga (SKJAM! Reviews)
Megan Rupe on vols. 1-2 of Yo-Kai Watch (No Flying No Tights)

 

The Best and Worst Manga of 2015

After a two-year hiatus from blogging, I donned my critic’s cap again in 2015. I’ve enjoyed writing my quasi-weekly column, but composing a year-end list reminded me why I stepped off the reviewing treadmill in 2012: mediocre books! This year yielded a veritable bumper crop of so-so manga, titles that were competently executed but otherwise unmemorable thanks to an abundance of generic characters, cliché settings, and predictable plot twists; you’d be forgiven for feeling that you’d read many of 2015’s debuts before, even if the artists were new to the US market.

Lurking among the paint-by-number romances and boy-saves-world titles, however, were a few gems. I’ve done my best to highlight the titles that made me feel something, whether that feeling was love, hate, or a mixture of both. To that end, I’ve included my nominees for the worst manga of 2015 alongside the books that made me laugh and cry.

Yowamushi-Pedal-Volume-1Best New Series: Yowamushi Pedal
By Wataru Watanabe • Yen Press
You know the rap on sports manga: American readers won’t buy it, and don’t like it. Yowamushi Pedal might just change that, however, thanks to a story that plays well across the nerd-jock divide. Onoda, the hero, is a self-professed otaku whose weekly bike rides into Akihabara have transformed him into a secret Lance Armstrong clone. Though Onoda wants to revive his school’s anime club, his amazing hill-climbing skills and stamina get noticed by more seasoned riders, all of whom convince Onoda to join the cycling team. The series’ races are nail-biting, page-turning affairs, but it’s the in-between stuff that makes Yowamushi Pedal work. Onoda doesn’t just discover a new skill; he discovers a community of people who share his passion for riding and respect his talent. In short, Yowamushi Pedal is a coming-of-age story in which a bike becomes the nerdy hero’s vehicle—pun intended—for self-actualization.

One-Punch ManBest New Shonen Series: One-Punch Man
By ONE and Yusuke Murata • VIZ Media
One-Punch Man is the ultimate have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too manga. On the surface, it’s an affectionate spoof of shonen clichés that pokes fun at goofy costumes, over-the-top training sessions, and speech-prone villains. On a deeper level, however, One-Punch Man is a great adventure series about an ordinary but strong-willed individual who sets out to rid his city of monsters, only to discover that there’s a much greater threat to mankind than the lobster-men and were-lions that roam the streets. The result is a sincere, gut-bustingly funny manga that reads like a Silver Age superhero comic, splats and all. (Reviewed at Manga Blog on 6/12/15.)

Horimiya_cover1Best New Romance Manga: Horimiya
By Hero and Daisuke Hagiwara • Yen Press
Horimiya is one of 2015’s most pleasant surprises, a teen rom-com that avoids cliché situations by focusing on the characters’ lives outside school. At first glance, its lead characters look like opposites: Kyouko is the class queen, while Izumi is a quiet loner. When they bump into each other off campus, however, they quickly realize they have more in common than their carefully constructed identities would suggest–a realization that leads to friendship and flirtation. In less imaginative hands, Kyouko and Izumi’s budding romance would be subjected to endless tests–school plays, beach trips, hot transfer students–but the authors resist the urge to trot out these over-used scenarios, relying instead on more ordinary settings for comedic (and dramatic) grist. It’s the perfect antidote to the wacky misunderstandings that drive the plots of Cactus’ Secret, Special A, and a dozen similar titles.

Cat_DiaryBest New Gag Manga: Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu
By Junji Ito • Kodansha Comics
Draw a Venn diagram that shows the overlap between Junji Ito fans and cat lovers, and you’ve found the small but perfect audience for Junji Ito’s Cat Diary, a collection of anecdotes about Ito’s beloved pets Yon and Mu. Though the manga’s jokes explore familiar terrain, Ito’s exaggerated reaction shots are priceless, capturing the mixture of love and disgust that cats inspire in their owners. (Imagine Edvard Munch drawing a gag manga about cats, and you get the general idea.) Ito is refreshingly honest about the way animals change the dynamic between people, too; in some of the manga’s most memorable scenes, Ito and his fiancée compete fiercely for their cats’ affection, plying Yon and Mu with toys, treats, and cuddles. Though the prevailing tone is campy, Ito’s obvious affection for his cats helps prevents the Diary from becoming too arch. (Reviewed at Manga Blog on 12/12/15.)

ludwig_kansiBest Historic Title: Ludwig B.
By Osamu Tezuka • DMP, Inc.
Left unfinished at the time of Osamu Tezuka’s death, Ludwig B. is a fictionalized biography of Beethoven. Tezuka only completed two volumes, but oh, those two volumes! Tezuka draws evocative scenes of Beethoven at the keyboard, using striking visual metaphors to convey the sound of Beethoven’s music. Tezuka also does a good job of capturing the dynamic between Beethoven and his father, revealing the extent to which Johann’s drinking, gambling, and stage-parenting cast a long shadow over Beethoven’s adult life. Purists should note that Tezuka takes frequent liberties with the historical record, creating a mustache-twirling villain named Franz Kreuzstein to serve as a foil for the young, determined Beethoven. If you’re not offended by such creative license, however, Ludwig B. offers an interesting glimpse into Beethoven’s development as a composer, and Tezuka’s lifelong fascination with Beethoven.

planetesBest Reprint Edition: Planetes
By Makoto Yukimura • Dark Horse
Listen up, manga publishers: if you’re going to do a new edition of a fan favorite, Dark Horse’s two-volume omnibus of Planetes is a swell example of how to do it right. The story has a crisp new translation, full-color pages, and a bigger trim size that gives Makoto Yukimura’s artwork room to stretch out. Better still, the new edition collects more chapters in each volume, allowing newcomers to read far enough into Planetes for Yukimura’s episodic character studies to gel into a more coherent story about space travel and social inequality; by the time newbies reach the end of volume one, they’ll be hooked, too.

sakamotoBest Manga I Thought I’d Hate: Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto
By Nami Sano • Seven Seas
In theory, Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto is a one-note samba: the titular character is handsome, good at everything, and unfailingly logical in all situations. In practice, however, Haven’t You Heard? is the Goldberg Variations of gag manga, taking stock scenes and putting a bizarre twist on them. The secret? Sakamoto is just a little too perfect, behaving more like a well-programmed android than a flesh-and-blood person. His peculiar brand of sangfroid confounds enemies and admirers alike; no one can decide if he’s cool or crazy, or where his loyalties might lie, making it impossible to predict how he’ll respond to each new challenge. (Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 8/7/15.)

jojo_phantom_blood1Worst Manga I Thought I’d Love: JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Part 1: Phantom Blood
By Hirohito Araki • VIZ Media
At the risk of becoming the Armond White of manga critics, I’m nominating Hirohito Araki’s bone-crunching, chest-thumping saga for Most Exhausting New Series of 2015. That’s because Phantom Blood is a prime example of all-caps theater, the sort of manga in which every word balloon is filled with emphatic punctuation, and every plot twist seems like the brainchild of six teenage boys hopped up on Mountain Dew. In small doses, this more-is-more approach to storytelling can be amusing, but in longer installments, the cumulative effect of so much narrative excess is numb resignation; I didn’t feel entertained so much as punched in the face. (Reviewed at Manga Blog on 5/22/15.)

mizuki_hitlerMost Disappointing Manga: Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler
By Shigeru Mizuki • Drawn & Quarterly
Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler is one of the artist’s lesser works, uncomfortably see-sawing between character study and history lesson in its efforts to show us the man behind the Third Reich. Mizuki’s signature blend of cartoonish figures and photo-realistic backgrounds have been deployed to powerful effect in Non Non Ba and Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths. Here, however, Shigeru’s hybrid style is a poor match with the subject; seeing Hitler reduced to a crude caricature makes it all too easy to view the book as a curiosity, rather than a serious meditation on evil. The virtual absence of the Holocaust is an even greater shortcoming; Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler never grapples with the Fuhrer’s most disturbing legacy save for one blurry image of stacked corpses. Perhaps Mizuki felt the subject was too complex to explore in this biography, but it’s hard to imagine any dramatization of the Fuhrer’s life that fails to examine his virulent anti-Semitism.

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So what are other folks saying about 2015’s best titles? My Manga Bookshelf colleagues just posted their Pick of the Year, with Ash Brown posting a separate, more detailed run-down of his favorite titles at Experiments in Manga. At the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, Brigid Alverson has posted separate lists for her favorite new and continuing series.