Pretty maids all in a row

December 23, 2010

I saw a story on the BBC about these all-girl pop groups that are cropping up in Japan under the sponsorship of just about everyone, from corporations to vegetable growers associations to urban redevelopment committees. And it reminded me of the truth that, when you put four or more attractive people in a row and give them some common purpose, your chances of achieving your aims improve at least slightly, depending on how appealing those four or more young people are.

They can come together by inspiration or design, it really doesn’t matter all that much. Origins in inspiration are obviously more highly regarded than manufacture, but, one or the other, people can still develop attachments to even the most cynically constructed assemblages. If they look good standing in a row, if their types connect in comforting ways, you’re in good shape.

The tale of local-produce promotional singing sensations mentioned above also reminded me of the truth that success replicates, even if you’ll never quite capture the lightning in a bottle that inspired the original. Entire comics companies have been born out of a desire to replicate the grim and gritty success of Wolverine. Intriguing notions become franchises, for better or worse.

In the case of the cast of Kiyohiko Azuma’s Azumanga Daioh (Yen Press), they are the best they are at what they do, and what they do is be funny and cute, particularly funny. Azuma’s ensemble seems to have inspired a host of imitators, temperamentally balanced groups of girls with their weapons set on “charm.” That they will almost certainly never rank any higher than second place, given that it’s unlikely that Azumanga Daioh will ever drop from first, isn’t reason for them not to exist. People didn’t stop writing plays about crazy, southern drunks after Tennessee Williams or musicals about neurotic people after Stephen Sondheim.

Of course, not all of these imitations fully justify their existence. I thought the four cute girl students of Ume Aoki’s Sunshine Sketch (Yen) were totally forgettable, like adorable collectibles rather than proper characters, in spite of their promising art-school setting. The music-club girls of Kakifly’s K-On (Yen) are just better enough that I can see myself spending a few volumes with them.

Yes, there’s the serious one, the loud one, the dingbat, and the rich girl. Yes, there’s the obnoxious teacher who should probably find another career. Yes, they go to the beach and wear kimonos and maid costumes. They basically go through all of the Stations of the Cross. But I enjoyed their company, and I got a reasonable number of chuckles out of their delivery of admittedly familiar situations. I can even abstractly appreciate the thoroughness with which Kakifly has abetted the audience’s wish fulfillment – there isn’t even the silhouette of a male character to present competition.

But, at the same time, I’m not the author’s ideal reader, either. I didn’t read the magazine, then collect the paperbacks, then watch the anime, then download the soundtrack of the anime, then buy the DVDs, then collect the figurines, play the video game, and track down the sexy fan comics, all while discussing with my friends which character I’d ideally like to marry, judging them for their choices. If that sounds like I’m judging the franchise for being cynically commercial, I’m not. Kakifly and company took a successful formula, turned it into something likable, and built a mini empire out of that. It’s better than building an empire based on something awful, right?


For your 2011 Eisner consideration

December 16, 2010

Submissions are being accepted for the 2011 Eisner Awards! I enjoyed cobbling a list of suggested manga nominations last year, so I thought I’d try again.

There could be a number of Japanese works that make it into the Best Short Story category, as both Fantagraphics and Top Shelf published highly regarded collections of short manga. If forced to pick just one story from Moto Hagio’s A Drunken Dream and Other Stories, I think it would have to be “Hanshin/Half-God.” There’s a lot of terrific work in Top Shelf’s AX anthology, but the one that keeps coming to mind would have to be Akino Kondo’s “The Rainy Day Blouse & the First Umbrella.”

Whether or not any Japanese titles show up in the Best Continuing Comic Book Series category is always kind of a crap shoot. If one shows up, there’s a good chance it’s probably by Naoki Urasawa, so I wouldn’t be surprised or at all displeased if we saw 20th Century Boys or Pluto (Viz) in this roster. I would be surprised and delighted if we saw that stalwart, The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (Dark Horse), written by Eiji Otsuka and illustrated by Housui Yamazaki, take a slot. The same goes for Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece (Viz), which experienced a big push this year and put Oda’s multifaceted gifts on flattering display.

The Best New Series category is tricky for similar reasons. You never know how they’ll define the category, and, hey, it’s not like the rest of the comics industry is hurting for good new titles. But if they want to mix it up with some newly launched (here, at least) manga series, here are four they might consider:

  • Twin Spica (Vertical), Kou Yaginuma’s heartfelt examination of a school for astronauts
  • Bunny Drop (Yen Press), Yumi Unita’s observant take on single fatherhood
  • House of Five Leaves (Viz), Natsume Ono’s alluring tale of an unemployed samurai who falls in with the right/wrong crowd
  • Cross Game (Viz), Mitsuru Adachi’s coming-of-age baseball drama.
  • Technically speaking, neither of the following titles was originally conceived of for kids, but I have no problem putting them forward as likely candidates for the Best Publication for Kids category. Konami Kanata’s Chi’s Sweet Home (Vertical) is charming and funny, and it offers a point-by-point run-through of the responsibilities of pet ownership, which is a great thing to hand a kid. Very few people don’t like Kiyohiko Azuma’s Yotsuba&! (Yen Press) for the simple reasons that it’s hysterically funny and wide open to just about anyone who cares to read it. It’s the kind of book that I think people want to read with the kids in their lives, which is certainly an enticement for voters.

    If there’s a category that’s hard to pin down, it would probably be Best Publication for Teens, partly because I don’t think teens really like being told “We know you’ll like this.” So I’ll go with two that are rated “Teen,” because I’m lazy like that. Cross Game has pretty much everything you could ask for from a coming-of-age novel: joy, sorry, confusion, comedy, great characters, and completely recognizable slices of life. Yuki Midorikawa slices up a more supernatural life with Natsume’s Book of Friends (Viz), but it has hearts and smarts in common with Adachi’s baseball comic.

    Not much has changed as far as my Best Humor Publication recommendations go, at least in relation to Koji Kumeta’s Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei (Del Rey). The aforementioned Yotsuba&! is routinely one of the funniest comics I read, and Kiminori Wakasugi’s Detroit Metal City (Viz) has a lot of vulgar high points.

    Unless there’s some utterly arcane bit of rules of which I’m unaware, there’s no reason on Earth for AX not to snag a Best Anthology nomination. It’s everything an anthology or collection is supposed to be, isn’t it? Purposeful, varied, significant, with bonus points for being frequently entertaining and nicely produced.

    Nominees in the Best Archival Collection apparently need to focus on work that’s at least 20 years old, so I suspect that might disqualify A Drunken Dream and Other Stories, but there’s plenty of material to choose from. Osamu Tezuka’s Ayako (Vertical) is perhaps not my favorite of his works, but there’s always Black Jack from the same publisher. There’s also Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s Black Blizzard (Drawn & Quarterly), which offers a worthwhile glimpse into his earlier, long-form works.

    Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material — Asia opens its own can of worms for me in terms of recommendation, because what I’d suggest would depend on what’s nominated elsewhere. I’m always for spreading the wealth, if possible. Assuming there’s an absence of comics from Japan in the other categories, I’d say these five are essential, though: A Drunken Dream an Other Stories (Fantgraphics), AX (Top Shelf), Bunny Drop (Yen Press), Twin Spica (Vertical), and Cross Game (Viz).

    It’s unfortunate that the Best Writer/Artist categories are divided into Humor and Drama, because the greats balance both. I would love to see Fumi Yoshinaga nominated, possibly in the humor side of the equation. Still, her year included All My Darling Daughters (Viz), new volumes of Ôoku: The Inner Chambers (Viz), and Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy (Yen Press), which seems like a perfectly reasonable excuse to nominate her for an award she’s deserved for years. I’d feel fairly secure in placing Moto Hagio in the Drama category, since that is the essential nature of the short stories collected in A Drunken Dream and Other Stories. They aren’t entirely void of humor, but…

    Chi’s Sweet Home’s qualifications for Best Publication Design may not be immediately obvious, but the care with which its reading orientation was flipped and color was added to each page are worth noting, especially in the ways that they opened the book up to a larger audience. There seem to be a lot of gorgeous, immense package jobs this year, slip-cased volumes that you could use as an ottoman, and there’s some snazzy design for books that doesn’t really enhance the actual comic in question, but the design for Chi’s Sweet Home served the product and was subtly beautiful at the same time. [Update: I'm reliably informed that the book was in color before it was flipped and translated.] The cover designs for 7 Billion Needles were perhaps less cumulative work, but their style and texture are real winners.

    What did I miss? What books and creators would you recommend for Eisner consideration?


    Upcoming 12/15/2010

    December 13, 2010

    Yen Press rules the anticipatory roost this week, at least in my neck of the woods.

    Fumi Yoshinaga’s Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy arrives fashionably late to the Best of 2010 mixer, I suspect. I haven’t read it yet myself, but it’s by Yoshinaga, but it seems to be in her “irresistibly, effortlessly charming” mode. Some early responses are available from Johanna (Manga Worth Reading) Draper Carlson and Manga Bookshelf’s Off the Shelf duo of Melinda Beasi and Michelle Smith. The book inspired Kate (The Manga Critic) Dacey (who reviews the book here) to host a contest, asking readers to name their favorite culinary comics.

    Still on the topic of irresistibly charming comics, Yen will also release the ninth volume of Kiyohiko Azuma’s Yotsuba&!, which really requires no additional endorsement beyond just saying that it will soon be available for sale. Kind of like new Yoshinaga manga, come to think of it.

    I don’t really know anything about it qualitatively, but there’s something about the cover of Yuuki Iinuma’s Itsuwaribito (Viz) that would probably make me pick it up in a store and browse a few pages. I suspect it’s the cheerful woodland creature.

    What looks good to you?


    MMF: The Great Shônen Manga Gift Guide for 2010

    December 4, 2010

    Daniella (All About Manga) Orihuela-Gruber is picking up the baton of the Great Manga Gift Guide, and I thought I’d take the opportunity of the One Piece Manga Moveable Feast to offer a shônen-flavored version that takes One Piece’s tone and content and creator Eiichiro Oda’s career arc into account. Now, many shônen series are great, but they’re just plain long, so it’s with some reluctance that I would suggest them as a gift when, if the gift is received well, it would require the recipient to spend a ton of money completing a series. That’s very “first hit’s free,” don’t you think? But sometimes that kind of recommendation is unavoidable, and since this list is conceived at least partly with the One Piece admirer in mind, I’m not going to be too rigid about it.

    I will be rigid about one thing: use what you know about the recipient to guide your choice of gifts. If you know they like comics, great. If you know you want them to like comics, tread carefully, and pair the comic gift with something you know they actually like. Holidays are always creepy when they’re tinged with evangelism, I think.

    It’s widely known that Oda took great inspiration from Akira Toriyama, so it seems reasonable to recommend Toriyama’s Dragon Ball, which is available in bulky, gift-worthy VizBig editions. It offers “a wry update on the Chinese ‘Monkey King’ myth, introduces us to Son Goku, a young monkey-tailed boy whose quiet life is turned upside-down when he meets Bulma, a girl determined to collect the seven ‘Dragon Balls.’ If she gathers them all, an incredibly powerful dragon will appear and grant her one wish. But the precious orbs are scattered all over the world, and to get them she needs the help of a certain super-strong boy…” Less adventure and more jokes can be found in Toriyama’s Dr. Slump (Viz). Toriyama and Oda have collaborated on a Dragon Ball/One Piece crossover called Cross Epoch.

    Oda began his career as an assistant to Nobuhiro Watsuki, who was working on Rurouni Kenshin (Viz) at the time. Viz declares, “Packed with action, romance and historical intrigue, Rurouni Kenshin is one of the most beloved and popular manga series worldwide. Set against the backdrop of the Meiji Restoration, it tells the saga of Himura Kenshin, once an assassin of ferocious power, now a humble rurouni, a wandering swordsman fighting to protect the honor of those in need.” It’s also available in VizBig format.

    Another of Watsuki’s assistants at the time was Hiroyuki (Shaman King) Takei, who’s currently at work on Ultimo (Viz) with Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee. I found the first volume of Ultimo unsatisfyingly creepy, but Erica (Okazu) Friedman liked it when she reviewed it for About.Com, finding that the series “provides a solid reading experience with characters you want to know more about, in a situation you want to see resolved well.”

    If you liked the whole “travel by water” notion and were particularly taken with the aesthetic of Water Seven, I would strongly suggest you take a look at Kozue Amano’s Aria (Tokyopop), which follows gondoliers on Mars. It’s the absolute tonal opposite of One Piece, but manga fans cannot live on crazy hyperactivity alone, and Aria and its prequel, Aqua, are really beautiful.

    If the goofy humor and occasional satirical bent of One Piece are to your liking and you’d like a slightly more mature (sometimes just coarser) take on them, I’d recommend Hideaki Sorachi’s Gin Tama (Viz). It’s about a swordsman-for-hire living in a world that’s been handed over to greedy, corrupt aliens. Like One Piece, it veers from flat-out goofy to surprisingly serious, and Sorachi does some entertaining world building.

    If you like Oda’s distinct, detail-packed artwork, give Yuji Iwahara’s Cat Paradise (Yen Press) a look. It’s your basic Hellmouth story – plucky young people must fend off demon invasion while keeping up with Algebra – with the bonus of helpful, heroic felines. It’s not Iwahara’s best work, but his pages are always easy on the eye.

    And now we start with shônen I’d recommend under any circumstances, first being Osamu Tezuka’s three-volume Dororo (Vertical). It’s disappointingly short, as Tezuka abandoned it much earlier than he had intended, but it’s creepy, funny, sad and wonderful. The lead character’s father sold his son to demons, part by part, and the kid has to kill all of the demons to get his body back. He hooks up with a young thief along the way.

    Far and away the best new shônen I read this year and one of the best sports manga I’ve ever read is Mitsuru Adachi’s Cross Game (Viz), which I reviewed here. Beyond being really good in every way, it’s a big, fat package that makes it very gift-worthy.

    What if you just like stories about pirates? Well, you can’t go wrong with Ted Naifeh’s Polly and the Pirates (Oni). A proper schoolgirl is shocked to discover that she’s got a pirate-queen legacy to live up to in this completely charming, hilarious comic.

    Chris Schweizer’s Crogan’s Vengeance (Oni) takes a more scholarly approach to how pirates actually plied their trade, but it doesn’t downplay the adventure in the process. It’s a smart romp, which I reviewed here.


    Thanks!

    November 25, 2010

    To celebrate Thanksgiving in the laziest way possible, I thought I would mention some ongoing comics that debuted (if only in print and in English) in 2010 so far for which I am grateful. And there’s still more than a month left.

    And here are some stand-alone works that made the year sparkle.

    The manga industry may be correcting itself, but we’re still getting great books, don’t you think? The images above are all linked to commentary of varying lengths. And added thanks to everyone who makes the comics blogosphere and twitterverse such a delightful place to visit.


    Upcoming 11/24/2010

    November 23, 2010

    The last time I wrote about 7 Billion Needles (Vertical), Nobuaki Tadano’s manga homage to Hal Clement’s Needle, I neglected to mention the retro cover design, which is terrific. You know that smell that used paperback stores have? The look of the book evokes that smell, and the proportions of the book support it. The contents of the book don’t quite evoke that pulpy nostalgia, but they hint at it, and they’ve got their own charms.

    In the second volume, Tadano inches forward with his meta approach to the tale of two warring aliens who crash on Earth and proceed to mess up the life of an isolated high-school girl and threaten the people around her. If Ultimo (Viz) is kind of a bland, accidentally creepy look at the endless battle between good and evil, 7 Billion Needles seems intent to play with the construct in ways that are perversely endearing. These moments aren’t the meat of the book, but they are the spice, and they’re welcome. They enliven what might otherwise be a standard, well-executed bit of violent angst.

    And it is well-executed, even without the twists on the formula. This time around, Hikaru confronts a trauma from her past. With the encouragement of her new friends, she goes to the village where she spent her childhood and confronts the reason she’s shut herself off from the people around her. Of course, the ostensibly heroic entity sharing her body and the monstrous being they battle complicate the sentimental journey with plenty of menacing action.

    This series really is a pleasant surprise. Of the four series Vertical has debuted this year, my expectations were probably lowest for 7 Billion Needles, but it’s smarter and more interesting than I had anticipated. Go read Kate (The Manga Critic) Dacey’s review for a thoughtful take on the book.

    So what else is due this week? There’s the seventh issue of Secret Avengers (Marvel), a very enjoyable spin-off of a comics franchise I’ve long found really horrible, so that’s nice. It’s also one of the only successful attempts I’ve ever seen to make super-heroes “proactive.”

    There’s also the debut of Kakifly’s K-On (Yen Press), a well-liked four-panel comedy about a high-school music club. It originally ran in Houbunsha’s Manga Time Kiara Carat.

    What looks good to you?


    Unrelated “N”

    October 27, 2010

    Before we get into this week’s letter of the seinen alphabet, I wanted to note something that makes me happy. Yen Press has a new cover for Fumi Yoshinaga’s Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy. It’s an improvement over the original, in my opinion.


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