We've already talked a bit about why we don't like using the word “manga” here at Comics Bulletin; it's a word that really doesn't do much besides otherize comics from a different country. We believe that comics are comics, no matter where they come from.
That said, it's certainly a word that people know the meaning of, or think they know the meaning of, and the greatest volume of non-American comics in America are from Japan. So we thought we'd construct a bit of a primer in the hopes that our readers might branch out and discover that there's a whole other world of comics out there, if they haven't done so already. We've tried to cover lots of genres, lengths, and styles, but we have, of course, left quite a bit out. It's the nature of these things
See that comment box at the bottom? We want to know what you think we left off of the list!
Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths – Shigeru Mizuki
If you have ever seen a WWII movie set in the Pacific—with beady eyed, cruel Japanese soldiers rushing from the jungle, seemingly immune to the idea that they were charging into death— then this is their story. The Eisner award-winning Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is a look at the other side of the enemy lines.
It tells the story of the regular human beings who were conscripted, torn from their homes and family, shipped off to a small island jungle they barely knew the name of, then ordered to charge into certain death, all for the sake of an “honor” that few really believed in.
It’s impossible to overstate author Shigeru Mizuki’s importance in modern Japan. This is a man who literally has his own museum, and has had bronze statues raised in his honor. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he showed up on the money, someday after his death. He is best known for his folklore monster comic Ge ge ge no Kitaro, but he exorcises a different kind of demon in his WWII historical comics.
In one of the defining acts of Mizuki’s life, he was conscripted and sent to Papua New Guinea, where he lost his arm. But the loss of his arm also saved his life—while he recovered in a hospital, Mizuki’s platoon was ordered into a suicide charge just like the one depicted in Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths.
Mizuki’s style has always been about blending discordant elements: comedy with tragedy, cartoony, exaggerated art with photorealism, sacred with the profane. As a comic artist, he is a true grandmaster who has been perfecting his craft for more than fifty years—which is a wonder in itself. How many other artists stay vibrant and vital into their nineties? But even from the high throne of a respected artist, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He loves toilet humor, and has more sympathy for the low than the high.
That sympathy is readily apparent here. This comic—his first to be officially translated into English—always reminds me of that scene in Henry V where the king walks in disguise amongst his troops and hears them mussing around the campfire. Like that scene, Noble Deaths is a story of grunts and soldiers, not heroes and commanders. It gives a face to those who did all of the actual dying at the Emperor’s command. They didn’t want to kill Americans. They didn’t want to be killed by Americans. Most of them had no greater wish than a sack of potatoes and a dry place to eat them.
I have seen several reviews for Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths from people who don’t normally read Japanese comics—even from people who actively hate them. They all have high praise for this comic. Everyone who picks it up is moved by it. Some try to justify it by saying this is a “graphic novel” and not a “manga,” but those are just silly labels so they can pat themselves on the back. Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is a comic book, a great comic book, by one of the greatest comic book artists who ever put pencil to paper.
It is not just a Japanese story, or a war story, but a human story. One I pray I can never relate to too well, because that would mean that I had been drafted and sent to die for a cause I didn’t believe in.
Akira – Katsuhiro Otomo
Akira is probably one of the most easily accessible Japanese comics in America today. It's been here for quite some time, originally brought over in single, colored issues by Epic, and it's received pretty extensive praise for the last two decades. It deserves every ounce of it, too.
The reason for the praise is going to be a bit hard to boil down, though, because there's quite a bit going on in Akira, despite being six volumes long.
Akira is a post-apocalyptic dystopia that takes place in the city of Neo-Tokyo around 2030, rebuilt after a nuclear blast destroyed the original city years ago. Parts of it might feel a bit familiar, as there are quite a few elements that are reminiscent of popular cyberpunk stories, but Akira is very much its own thing, with truly little else like it.
It's the story about the dissolution of an almost brotherly friendship, battles between super-powered characters, and an uprising against an oppressive/controlling government. While the story plays out over these ideas, they're not necessarily the main focus. Instead, they're used to promote ideas of an alienated youth culture that's turned to each other because they can't or won't trust the rest of the world, a hardcore honor-bound military force representative of a Japan that's been long gone, and general government and human corruption.
That's just talking about the themes, though. Otomo is a master of the comics medium, easily on par with Moebius, and you can see it in every page of Akira. There are plenty of great articles extolling his virtues as a cartoonist, so if nothing else, you really owe it to yourself to check out the series for its sheer beauty.
There's a lot to be said about the film version of Akira, especially in what it is lacking. That's not to say that it is a bad movie, far from it actually, but it suffers from the fate of adapting multi-volume epics for the silver screen. You just can't fit everything in. The film gives you a glimpse and the comic gives you the full picture. You might have some fun tracking down those colored issues, but the easiest way to get your hands on the series are the black and white tomes, formerly released by Dark Horse, currently distributed by Kodansha.
Lone Wolf and Cub – Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's Lone Wolf and Cub wasn't the first Japanese comic series to be brought to Western audiences (that'd be Mai the Psychic Girl), but it is one of the first Japanese comics that had a noticeably large impact on Western
comic creators. When First Comics brought the series to these shores in 1987, it had the support of Frank Miller, Matt Wagner, Bill Sienkiewicz and others, contributing covers and vocal accolades.
In Miller's case, there was even a history with the work, as Lone Wolf and Cub had a noticeable influence on the look and tone of Miller's early creator owned masterpiece Ronin. Miller wasn't alone, either, as everyone from Stan Sakai to Max Allan Collins have pinpointed the work as a major influence, with both creating homages to the series. And even without that historical weight, it's easy to see the continued appeal of the series, which transcends genre and nationality.
Lone Wolf and Cub centers around Ogami Itto and his infant son Daigoro, who have been forced to go rogue after a rival clan murdered Itto's wife as vengeance for Itto's execution of their leader. The two set out to claim their own vengeance and though Daigoro is an infant, one of the series' finest moments depicts him making his own fateful choice, which could be read as a statement that he was born into murder. But what makes Lone Wolf and Cub truly appealing is how beautiful it is, even at its most violent. Koike and Kojima depict feudal Japan as a heartbreakingly beautiful place, despite being surrounded by death. It's a series that is all too easy to get wonderfully lost in, absorbing the period details and exquisite nature scenes, forgetting you're in the middle of an 8700 page epic.
This is a series that showcases the diversity and potency of manga, going toe to toe with the epic samurai films of Kurosawa or, more recently, Takashi Miike, juxtaposing the beauty of the samurai era with the senseless violence and questionable honor. Lone Wolf and Cub isn't just a great series for beginners, it's a must own work for comic fans on the whole.
Yotsuba&! – Kiyohiko Azuma
The weird thing about American comics is that we don't really tend to get series like this anymore, if we ever really did, and what we do get is certainly not nearly as popular as they have in Japan. It's a story about the life of five-year-old girl named Yotsuba, her father, and some of their friends/neighbors. I know that may not sound too exciting, but it's honestly one of the most enjoyable comics I've read in some time.
To begin with, the series is kind of strange. You can tell that something about Yotsuba&! is a little off just a few pages in to the first volume, when Yotsuba's father notices that she's gone missing, and his response is that she'll turn back up when she's hungry. The fact that he doesn't seem to be too worried about this indicates that a) Yotsuba is a bit of a strange child and b) those who know her are used to it.
When you mix this in with the three sisters who live next door, each of whom are different ages and have quite different personalities, it leads to some pretty hilarious scenes as Yotsuba breaks them in. Add in Yotsuba's somewhat uncertain father and his super-confident friend, Jumbo, and you get a pretty fun cast that has continued to be entertaining for quite a while now. Hell, just the juxtaposition of Jumbo and Yotsuba is often pretty funny in and of itself.
It would be easy to call Yotsuba naïve, but that's pretty much built into being a child. What Azuma captures perfectly is the wide-eyed curiosity and excitement of a child, which is what makes this series such a joy to read. It takes the little things in life that we take for granted, or even the things we view as a chore, and it shows us a good side to them, often with a pretty good laugh.
Oishinbo – Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki
I know lots of people who don’t regularly read any comics, Japanese or American—but they read Oishinbo. Because Oishinbo breaks out of any genre restrictions and taps into an entirely different audience.
Oishinbo is a foodie comic.
That’s right, Japan actually has a diverse enough comic book readership that they can create a popular comic book entirely devoted to food; it's about cooking food, tasting food, seeking out rare ingredients and comparing restaurants, and the entire chef-and-customer world that powers the multi-million dollar industries of cookbooks, celebrity chefs, and the Food Network
Oishinbo (translating directly as "Delicious Boy") is a long running (over 100 volumes) and super-popular Japanese comic that deals with Japanese cooking and journalist Yamaoka Shiro's quest for "The Ultimate Menu." The series delves deeply into Japanese cuisine, and has been adapted into animation and a live-action TV show.
Viz Signature knows their audience, and released what they call Oishinbo A La Carte. This takes chunks of stories from the comic and groups them thematically— like noodles or sushi or sake. Yamaoka's food adventures are usually far off the beaten path, serving delicacies like black edamame from Tanba, chicken skin hot pot, and four-hour boiled potatoes.
All of the recipes look fantastic–some of them fantastic in the literal sense. Oishinbo is famous in Japan for fancy recipes that aren't actually any good when you try to make them. But even with bad recipes, if you like to cook, Oishinbo is an inspiration. Every time I read a volume, it isn't long before I head to the kitchen.
My big problem with Viz’s presentation is that while the cooking portions are intact, the story is random. One chapter might have Yamaoka being pursued by the rich and beautiful Futaki Mariko, and the next could have Yamaoka and his wife Yuko giving birth to twins. Characters appear and disappear at random, being introduced in other comics not included in this particular collection. I personally think Viz underestimated the potential of this series, and should have released them in serialized order just like every other comic.
But they are targeting non-comic readers with this series. And if you like to cook, if you like to eat, if you get excited about food, I guarantee that you will like Oishinbo too.
FLCL – Hajime Ueda
The animated FLCL was one of my introductions to Japanese animation. Or at least, an introduction that wasn't Pokemon-related. And in a way, it ruined me. FLCL is the kind of insane work of art that leaves you permanently altered afterward; as a 16 year old watching it on [adult swim] late at night with my then girlfriend, it was an eye opening experience. A glimpse at a mad world of endlessly mutating art styles and pop culture references that were so quick you couldn't possibly catch them all at once. So of course, I had to seek out more, which is where the comic comes in.
If FLCL the show is anime gone Dada, then FLCL the comic is Dada gone apocalyptic. It's basically the same story – that age old story of a pubescent boy who gets run over by a beautiful woman on a vespa and bopped on the head by her Rickenbacker and robots start coming out of his head as a result – but it's more serious, the slapstick and giddiness toned down but not in a disappointing way.
In a way, the comic isn't just a great beginning point for Japanese comics on the whole but a great entry for the series it's based off of, operating at a slower, less chaotic pace that allows one to better grasp what's happening in its televised form. The art, courtesy of Hajime Ueda, is darker as well, utilizing harsh ink shading that gives the book a jagged feel and making it recall Western works like I Kill Giants and Joe the Barbarian, both of which were published long after.
Those are important works to keep in mind when thinking of FLCL, as it has a bold modern take on youth that is appealing to those living through it and those who are looking back on that time through the wisdom of age. The Western comics world may get most of the attention when it comes to defining youth in revolt, but FLCL more than holds its own, and it certainly spoke volumes to this former rebellious teen.
Love Hina – Ken Akamatsu
I am going to cheat a little here on the “for beginners” theme, because, while Love Hina wasn’t the first Japanese comic I ever read, it was the first comic I read in Japanese. I wanted something that wasn’t too linguistically challenging, yet would be fun enough to keep me going through the arduous process of trying to master a complicated language. It was perfect.
So is it also good for manga beginners reading it in English? Oh, yes. In fact, while I was working through it in Japanese, my girlfriend—a non-comic reader if ever there was one—picked up my English volumes and got totally hooked on the story. She loved it because it is funny. Really funny. In fact, Love Hina is one of the few comics that made me laugh out loud.
At first glance, Love Hina seems formulaic—a standard Japanese "harem" comic. Lovable loser Keitaro dreams of success, but fails at everything he tries. Out of luck and plans, he visits his Grandmother and winds up the manager of the Hinata Lodge, a fantastic building with a backyard hot spring, populated by beautiful and feisty girls.
Keitaro, the incurable romantic, is searching for his "promise girl," the love of his life that he knew back when he was about three years old. They promised they would grow up, attend Tokyo University (think Harvard) together, and get married. He can't remember her name, but he hasn't given up hope. Just possibly, one of the gals at the Hinata Lodge is Keitaro's long-lost Promise Girl, and he just might find her, if he doesn't get killed first. Hijinks ensue.
Typical, right? Nothing to lure a non-comics reader into the world of Japanese comics. But somehow, Love Hina does everything right. Series creator Ken Akamatsu knows how to work an ensemble cast, giving each girl a distinct personality and story arc. Sure, much of the hijinks comes from Keitaro doing his best only to wind up with panties on his head, or walking in on one of the girls naked, only to get a swift kick for his troubles—that is standard Akamatsu fare. But Love Hina has some serious undercurrents and nuances that makes all the over-the-top stuff that much funnier.
Pluto – Naoki Urasawa
You might remember Naoki Urasawa from our Top Ten Dense Comics list from a while back for his work on 20th Century Boys. It should be of little surprise to readers familiar with his work that he's shown up again this week; in Pluto, Urasawa adapts a classic Astro Boy story by Osamu Tezuka into an epic modern science fiction mystery that does a stellar job of illustrating how we define humanity.
The series opens up with the murder of one of the most powerful and beloved robots in the world, Mont Blanc of Switzerland. At the same time, a robot rights activist is murdered in a seemingly related incident, but the corpses of the two characters are both given similar treatment after death, including adding makeshift horns to them.
Enter Pluto's protagonist, Gesicht, a detective and one of the seven (now six) greatest robots in the world. At the surface level, you get a crazy futuristic sci-fi murder mystery with international levels of intrigue and suspense. It's got amazing fight scenes between some particularly vicious characters, an amazingly well-rounded cast that are almost all connected to each other in some way, and it's got a damn impressive style to it too.
The surface level alone makes Pluto a must-read.
That said, Urasawa has layered this thing pretty deep. Beyond having a pretty intricate plot that weaves in and out of each volume, there's also a pretty solid message beneath it all too. While the majority of the relatable characters in the series are robots, it is impossible to ignore just how much what they do and how they feel says about humanity.
Emotions are the at the core of Pluto, especially the dangers of caustic ones like hatred, but Urasawa never really gets preachy. Rather, he lets you see for yourself what love and hatred can do to a person.
One of the greatest strengths of Pluto is that Urasawa doesn't spend time explaining to you how it is that characters like Gesicht and Atom can feel; he shows you that they do feel, that they may as well be human, so that you just have to accept it. And that's how a murder mystery starring robots will tell you more about what it means to be human than the bulk of comics.
The Push Man and Other Stories – Yoshihiro Tatsumi
If you've been reading alt comics for even just a short amount of time, you're likely already familiar with ground level focus of the indie world for much of the '90s and early '00s. It's an era ruled by titans like Adrian Tomine, Daniel Clowes, and Chester Brown. For many, that aspect of alt comics has its patient zero – Harvey Pekar – and is a distinctly North American trend, but that's not entirely the case.
Drawn & Quartlerly – the ultimate in biocomic publishing, perhaps – proved with their excellent work translating and publishing Yoshihiro Tatsumi's back catalogue, as edited by none other than Adrian Tomine himself.
That project began in 2005 with The Pushman and Other Stories, a series of urban vignettes by Tatsumi that capab
ly makes the case that Tatsumi is the true street level voyeur, a genius at home not in the elaborate, fantastical worlds many associate with Japanese comics but instead in the alleyways and claustrophobic apartments that make up the Japan we don't see. It's a work that spotlights the Japan of the pornographer, of the desperately perverse, of the anxious and stressed out. Tatsumi's knack for observant storytelling allies him less with his graphic novelist peers and more with the filmmakers of the Japanese New Wave, specifically his fellow urban voyeurs Oshima and Imamura.
The Pushman and Other Stories isn't Tatsumi's greatest achievement, but it's an excellent sampling of his interests and abilities, as well as a sampling of the more humble, subtle corners of Japanese graphic art.
Solanin – Inio Asano
Inio Asano's Solanin will wreck you, and then you'll find yourself coming back for more.
The star of the novel, Meiko Inoue, just graduated college and is working in a job that she loathes; her boyfriend, Taneda, can't make enough to scrape by on his freelance illustration job and, thus, is permanently crashing at her apartment.
They're both in the limbo of their post-college, pre-professional lives, struggling to get by and stay happy at the same time. When you add in their supporting cast, you get a pretty reasonable slice of 20-something life from all directions, and you see every one of them wrestling with how to realize their dreams while simultaneously feeling helpless, accepting that the world is the way it is and that there's not much they can do to change it or their direction.
As is often the case in life, something happens that forces each of them to reevaluate the way they're going about their lives much sooner than they would probably like to. Solanin is about all of this, but more than anything else, it's about discovering that things don't always work out the way we plan them and learning to deal with that, love yourself, and be happy.
Asano's art style is beautifully emotive, with a huge variety of facial expressions and quite a bit of body language; he is easily one of the best artists I've encountered in comics, doing a spectacular job with everything from panel layouts to character designs to wardrobe changes.
I've never seen anyone draw sweat the way he does, either. That might seem like an odd thing, but when I see someone performing on a stage, lights beating down on them, and they're drenched in sweat, I believe it. It feels real.
The phrase “coming of age” is generally used for stories about kids in their teens, often in high school, but I think it can genuinely apply to people of any age who are discovering themselves and the world around them. I would definitely call Solanin a coming of age story for Generation Y, as it seems to do an excellent job describing the ennui and general lack of direction that permeates many of our lives.
I honestly do not know that I've read a piece of literature from another culture that has done so much to reinforce just how alike we are, regardless of where we are from or whatever world we have grown up in, and that's why you're seeing Solanin at the top of this list.
It's a brilliantly told story that is relatable to practically anyone who has gone through or is currently going through their 20's. If you're younger, just wait, and you'll love it too.