Say It With Manga
There’s a handful of “underground” manga in English, most of it fairly interesting. I’ve always hated the designation “underground manga” since it feels like a marketing term, but it’s a neat category for any book that doesn’t fit in with the genre and age group tropes you find in most manga. Yoshihiro Tatsumi is probably the most widely-read and has the largest body of work available in English. There’s also a handful of books by artists like Yusaku Hanakuma (Tokyo Zombie), Imiri Sakabashira (The Box Man), Seiichi Hayashi (Red-Colored Elegy), and Yuichi Yokoyama (Travel). Those artists all range from thematically and visually similar to Yoshihiro Tatsumi to… much more out there, to say the least. But one of the most infamous is Suehiro Maruo. He is first and foremost a fantastic illustrator. Favoring the time period from 1910-1930, his work usually has a modern antique feel to the settings, clothing, and characters. He has a very stiff, ornate drawing style that is clearly inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e work, but the period flourishes and accurate figure drawing make it feel very western. But most people walk away from his books remembering the outlandish but beautifully-rendered violence. Violence so intense, in fact, that I had trouble finding a good example for the header that wasn’t too gross to put above a cut. Because he is an illustrator first, his comics don’t flow that well, but his panels are frequently interrupted by bizarre, very shocking tableau.
Only three volumes of his work have been translated into English. I mention them all here, mainly because The Strange Tale of Panorama Island came out a couple weeks ago, and it’s worth reading. For the curious, there’s also a Maruo short story in the collection Comics Underground Japan called “Planet of the Jap,” a bleak and violent what-if story about Japan winning WWII that is not for the faint of heart.
I’ve never been a big fan of the “mecha” series, unfortunately. In general, the complicated politics and focus on technology and combat aren’t of interest to me, though there are several very well done series. But I’ve dabbled in it off and on over the years, both intentionally and accidentally, and there’s a fair bit in the genre for everybody. The three below are more character-focused, and two are series that may fly under the radar, for mecha at least. Two of them are also among the most popular manga/anime series from the 90s.
I’m going to do something a little different this week. Vertical’s release of Utsubora, by Asumiko Nakamura, has just started shipping, and should be available in comic shops next week. Vertical was underwhelmed with preorders, and suggested it would be a limited run, which is a real shame. Nakamura’s an author worth reading, and it would be tragic if the first real foray into her work in English went completely ignored. Utsubora is a wonderful book, and after reading it in one sitting when it arrived on Tuesday, I knew nothing else would do for this week’s column.
There’s a genre one sees quite a bit of in manga that seem to appear rarely elsewhere – the magic shop story. These are usually very similar, with a proprietor or a set of characters that runs a shop full of magical items that are vended to unsuspecting patrons, often with ironic results. It’s a good framing device for series of unconnected short stories, usually horror-themed, and a kind of analogue to the horror collections that used to appear often among US comics. The US horror collections and these “magic shop” series are quite different, however. I’m going to cover the most popular “magic shop” series in this column, but there are so many that the topic will come up at least one more time. Also interesting is that the “flavor” of the series is often determined by the shop owner and characters – there is always an overarching plot and direction for the series, and all three of these are radically different, despite being horror-flavored collections of short stories united with a framing device.
Sometimes, it’s good to look at a topic that is only a topic by happenstance. These series have nothing in common aside from the fact they share names with locations. Often, they have nothing to do with those places. That doesn’t make them any less fun to read.
Enjoy the cover of Animerica Extra, one of the handful of dead English manga anthologies. Animerica Extra was always my favorite. None of the others ever had Yumi Tamura covers.
Between 1990 and 1991, Viz experimented with a graphic novel line called the Viz Spectrum imprint. Graphic novel lines were an oddity at the time, but this one’s also an anomaly among modern graphic novel lines as well. Viz was publishing more mature titles at the time. Their three launch titles from 1988 were all men’s titles in sci-fi and historical genres, and there were also contemporary action series that came later. The Spectrum books are of a similarly mature flavor, though in genres that we don’t often see translated today. These books are also all 70 pages, or two comic issues. The graphic novels themselves are oversized deluxe editions, still paperback, but with a lot more effort going into the presentation (vellum pages, vinyl covers, some foil embossing, et cetera). Each volume also contains an interesting essay in the back related to the content or artist. The books are pretty solid, and the line is obscure enough that it’s worth visiting.
I could go into the whole “manga-inspired comics” debate, but I really don’t want to, as I like good manga no matter where it comes from. One of my current favorites, in fact, is a series of self-published doujinshi drawn by Jo Chen. Thankfully, manga-style comics from other countries are much more widely accepted today, as Yen Press has an entire line of domestically-produced manga adaptations of YA novels that I suspect does quite well. There are still many purists and older fans that insist manga can only come from Japan, however. This article covers three series that are, in theory, the best of both worlds. All three are drawn by Japanese artists (in two instances, very well-established Japanese artists), and all three were serialized in Japanese anthology magazines, the origin of all manga released in Japan. But all three were written by non-Japanese authors. Sadly, none of these are terribly stand-out series, but that the collaboration exists at all is quite interesting to me.
There are a lot of manga series about assassins. Kazuo Koike has penned several, in fact, including Sanctuary, Crying Freeman, and Lone Wolf and Cub, one of the more famous series. But there are many titles with assassins in them, a few that deal with killers of men, and a handful with an assassin character, who may be serious or a joke. Sometimes the assassins are somehow benevolent, sometimes they’re disturbed individuals, and sometimes they’re just professionals. But here are three series, all of them quite good, that deal with three different types of assassins.
Zombies aren’t quite in season, but it can be interesting to look at them anyway. Also uninteresting, as the theme is becoming a bit tired, but it’s a good idea that can be approached from many different directions. There’s a metric ton of manga that use zombies as a theme, from Is This a Zombie? to Zombie-Loan, High School of the Dead to Evil’s Return. Talking about three is only scratching the surface, but here are three that use the zombie in three different ways.
While I have none myself, pets are near and dear to many people. It follows that there are many series about keeping pets, and manga is no exception. There are whole magazines dedicated to the genre of pet comics in Japan, but only a few series have been translated into English over the years. Honestly, I did try to come up with series with more unusual animals… the heroine of Wild Act keeps flying squirrels that help her commit thefts, for instance, and Io Sakisaka has a strange habit of relating stories about her chinchilla giving birth in the author’s notes of Strobe Edge. But pets aren’t really the focus of those, and this week, I’m looking at a few series that are specifically about cats and dogs.
For the record, Guru Guru Pon-chan is the best series I can think of about keeping a pet, but it’s so unbelievably weird and uncomfortable that I’m saving it for another day. Do look it up though, if you’re curious.
While I do enjoy a good post-Apocalypse setting, there’s very little that can compare to a good disaster story, showing us the apocalypse itself rather than the way society copes with it. Surprisingly, this is a less common type of story than I initially thought, but I enjoy it immensely when I can lay hands on it. Any type of disaster can work, and I find that the weirder it is, the better. I’ve covered Lives in a different article, which isn’t a series that most people would want to read, but it does have a strange disaster afoot. The three below were some of the only other series I could come up with, but two of the three come highly recommended.
One of the best things about reading a lot of manga is being able to trace the lineage of certain types of plots and characters back through the years. Popular series can be massively influential, and I’ve talked about this before regarding One Piece and some of the modern series it influenced. You can play this game with a lot of series, but one of my absolute favorites is Fist of the North Star. Fist of the North Star itself is an awesome, testosterone-laden series that’s very much worth reading, but one of the best things about it is how influential it is. It has plenty of the usual knock-off series and pale imitations, most of which we did not see in English (mostly because Fist of the North Star predates most English translated manga by about 15 years). It inspired series and creators that used the best parts to create their own amazing and, in turn, very influential series.
I try not to cover the same series twice, but I feel like if I’m going to discuss the influence of Fist of the North Star, I might as well bring out the best that topic has to offer. I’ll talk about the plots and the finer points of two of these series at a later date, and the third is something I’ve already discussed, but is worth revisiting in this context.
Whenever I open a book by Usamaru Furuya, it’s tough to tell what I’m going to see. Furuya studied fine art in college, and went on to draw 4-panel strips (a work called Palepoli) for underground magazine Garo without knowing much at all about comics. The results have to be seen to be believed. He’s an artistic chameleon, mimicking every style from Botticelli to Osamu Tezuka, with creepy photorealistic portraits of Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta thrown in for good measure. Palepoli’s strips are full of violent, sexual, and absurdist humor, with commentary on both Japanese and American pop culture mixed through the whole book. We’ve only seen a handful of strips from Palepoli in English (in Secret Comics Japan), but his other work can be just as artistically interesting. His habit of changing styles and mimicking the work of others is something you don’t often see in manga. He can also change story styles abruptly, from a tween coming-of-age story to a dark adaptation of Dazai’s No Longer Human. The three works I mention below were all released in 2011 (a good year for Furuya fans!), but you might also look into Short Cuts, a 2-volume series of 4-panel gag strips, mostly about teenage girls.
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Diary and biography comics exist all over the world, and Japan is no exception. The most common form we see for manga in English are the short comics that appear in the margins and afterwords of many romance and action series. But there are real manga biographies, some of which I’ve already touched on. A Drifting Life and Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths are two of the better, more literary ones the deal with specific subjects, but there are a handful of others available. The three below are all fairly different and very eccentric, and worth a look even for those that aren’t normally into autobiographies.
Say what you will about meta entertainment, but I’ve always had a soft spot for it. There’s something exciting to me about reading a behind-the-scenes look, especially one that was made for the sake of entertainment. There are many manga series about making manga, and they run the range from awful to amazing, nonfiction to “fictionalized” accounts. I’ve already touched on Bakuman, which is a surprisingly exciting series that puts Shounen Jump manga under a microscope. There’s a handful of others, but here’s three more of the best, in my opinion.