The best graphic novel of 2007

December 30, 2007

In a comment, Huff expressed the opinion that the publication of Fumiyo Kouno’s Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms was one of the manga events of 2007. Huff goes on to regret the fact that not nearly enough people have read it, and I have to agree. While I can’t say definitively that it was the best graphic novel published in English in 2007 (as I haven’t read all of them and don’t have any intention to try), I can say without hesitation that it was the best graphic novel published in English in 2007 that I read.

The book has gotten under my skin, and I’ve read it repeatedly since its publication in March. And while I really do try and avoid being one of those nags that pops a vein when I find out that people haven’t read this or that book, this one is so good that it’s sparked my generally suppressed comics activist tendencies. So, in the hopes of persuading more people to read Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms, here are some examples of what people have said about it. (If you’ve read and written about it, please feel free to send me the link or post it in the comments, and I’ll update this entry.)

New York Magazine’s Dan Kois names it one of the best comics of 2007.

Jason Thompson discusses the book in Otaku USA:

“As plot summaries, Kouno’s tales sound melodramatically sad: a struggling young woman lives with her mother in the shantytowns of 1955 Hiroshima; a young girl in modern-day Tokyo learns more about her family’s past. But Town of Evening Calm is not a predictable lesson about prejudice, or a weepy melodrama; the plot feels real. The romances between the characters are charming, fitting nicely with the sweet artwork. The scenes of daily life—sitting on a grassy riverbank, sewing, children playing—are welcoming. The antiwar message is unspoken, and comes naturally from the desire not to see the characters die. Only occasionally does it become explicit, as when a dying victim of radiation sickness asks bitterly, ‘I wonder what the people who built the bomb are thinking … ‘Hooray, got another one’?’”

Nick Mullins reviews the book at nijomu blog:

“This is a quiet little book that I can see easily slipping beneath most people’s radar. And that’d be a pity, because Kouno has given us such a wonderful reading experience. She is a master craftsperson with a keen eye on the strength and fragility of the human heart. Her kind of artistic honesty will always be needed, but seems especially poignant for people in the U.S. these days.”

Shaenon K. Garrity features the book in an installment of her Overlooked Manga Festival:

“Manga fans may be a little taken aback by Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms. In stark contrast to the fast-paced, plot-driven approach of most mainstream manga–and, for that matter, a lot of alternative manga–it’s slow, casual, subtle, and largely plotless. Kouno invites you to spend some time with her characters and their city, and then she steps aside. But what a visit.”

Katherine Dacey-Tsuei gives it an A+ at Manga Recon:

“Kouno’s refusal to impose an obvious dramatic structure on either story, her deft manipulation of time, and her emphasis on small, everyday moments, inoculate Town of Evening Calm against sentimentality and mawkishness. The artwork is clean and simple, with enough background detail to bring the streets of Hiroshima to vivid life. Kouno’s character designs have a slightly rough, clumsy quality to them; the adults’ large heads and large feet seem to belong to bigger bodies. Yet these awkward proportions don’t detract from the beauty of the work; if anything, the illustrations make Kouno’s characters seem more vulnerable, more imperfect, more fragile—in short, more human and more believable. And that honest vulnerability, in turn, makes it possible for readers from all walks of life to enter sympathetically into Kouno’s haunting yet life-affirming story.”

Dacey-Tsuei subsequently includes it in her list of favorite manga from 2007, also at Manga Recon.

I beg readers to buy it in a Flipped column:

“So, you should buy this book, because it’s good in every way that matters. Reading it will give you genuine pleasure, and that pleasure will only be enhanced by the worthiness of the subject matter and Kouno’s intelligence and sensitivity in dramatizing it.”

Jog recommends it in his inimitable fashion at his blog:

“In the end, this is a deeply affirmative book, one eager to seat the reader on its final image of a train barreling toward the future, unsatisfied with merely soaking in the miserable facts of life and collecting awards for it – this book wants to address the here and now as well, and confront issues of society through its beguiling style.”

Christopher Butcher sings its praises:

“This right here? This is one of those important manga that you hear about every once in a while. Two short stories about the after-effects of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, years after the blast. I’ve already had the good fortune to read this and it’s absolutely incredible.”

The book is nominated for inclusion in the Young Adult Library Services Association’s list of Great Graphic Novels for Teens.


The year that was

December 28, 2007

So what were the big manga news stories of 2007? I’m not talking about announcements of things to come so much as things that actually happened. (For example, I’m very happy about the prospect of an international anthology from Yen Press, but it’s not here yet. It’s very likely to be one of the stories of the year in which it does drop.)

Here are some possibilities:

Naruto Nation: I know, colossal “duh,” huh? Beyond being incredibly nervy of Viz to unload that much product from a single franchise in a relatively short time span is the shocking fact that it actually worked. Obviously, the popularity of that franchise was essential to the initiative’s success, and I don’t know that it could be replicated with just about any other property, but damn, they sold a lot of Naruto in the last three months of 2007.

The Age of the Omnibus: Maybe I’m overstating the importance of this because I like the idea so much, but this is another somewhat unexpected idea that seemed to gain a lot of traction in 2007 and actually work, leading me to suspect that the trend will expand in 2008. I mean, there’s already a mix of high-end, collector’s collections and value-for-volume versions, which has to tell us something.

The Autism Comic: As I indicated above, Yen Press has announced a number of nervy moves in 2007 – the promised anthology, acquiring ICE Kunion’s catalog, announcing a boys’-love line, etc. But in terms of actual, existing product, and ignoring their fairly generic-looking first wave of licensed shônen, the newcomer’s publication of Keiko Tobe’s With the Light, a meticulously researched comic about a family dealing with autism, is most noteworthy. And it’s apparently selling extremely well to demographics outside the norm for manga. (Of course, that demographic could possibly have just been terribly underserved in terms of intelligent fictional portrayals.) All the same, I find the publication of this book and its apparent commercial success terribly encouraging. (Soon, the way will be paved for agri-manga. Soon!)

Manga: The Complete Guide: Nothing confirms the official arrival of an entertainment category like a comprehensive (at the time), general-audience guide to the available offerings, and this is a very good example of the form. There’s already some very good popular scholarship available about manga from the likes of Frederik Schodt and Paul Gravett, but a user-friendly guide like this seems particularly noteworthy. (I’m not about to call Jason Thompson the Roger Ebert of manga, because Ebert bugs me.)

Tempted as I am to include that near-miss from Seven Seas just so I could use “No, no, Nympet” as a bullet tag, it doesn’t seem to quite make the cut. Neither do any of the “I’m shocked that my child could find this smut in a public library/chain bookstore and hence I must call the local newspaper/television station” dust-ups, not because there weren’t any but because they seemed so routine. New BL and yaoi imprints seem more like an expansion of big news from last year (or even 2005) than something specific to 2007, and yuri and josei still don’t have the kind of foothold they’d need to meet my admittedly undefined standard.

So which manga happenings from the last year stick in your mind?


Coming up Shortcomings

December 27, 2007

It didn’t make the list of “The 10 Best Books of 2007,” but Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings (Drawn & Quarterly) did land on list of “100 Notable Books of 2007,” compiled by The New York Times.


Upcoming 12/28/2007

December 26, 2007

Friday is the last shipping day of 2007, but I learned last year that it’s not to be overlooked. (I posted my “Year in Fun” list, and then Glacial Period came out from NBM. Caution is the theme for this year.)

And what have we here? The second in the series of graphic novel collaborations with The Louvre, The Museum Vaults: Excerpts from the Journal of an Expert, by Marc-Antoine Mathieu. You won’t fool me again, NBM. I’m holding out in case of awesomeness.

New volumes are due for a couple of series I really enjoy: the third of Kairi Fujiyama’s Dragon Eye (Del Rey) and the ninth of Minetaro Mochizuki’s Dragon Head (Tokyopop). Clearly, I would probably also like series called Dragon Nostril, Dragon Earlobe, and Dragon Epiglottis.

Of course, having read the latest issue of Otaku USA, I realize I have some catching up to do on the Tokyopop front: there’s Mari Okazaki’s josei title, Suppli, and Yuki Nakaji’s Zig*Zag. I was very impressed with Nakaji’s Venus in Love from CMX, and I saw that they were doing a cross-promotion for the two Nakaji series, but what can I tell you? Something sparkly must have come into my range of vision and distracted me.


Quick comic comments: Wild Adapter vol. 3

December 23, 2007

Are Kazuya Minekura’s Saiyuki and Saiyuki Reload as insanely entertaining as Wild Adapter (Tokyopop)? If they are, I have a daunting amount of catching up to do. (Dear Tokyopop: All I want for Christmas is an inexpensive Saiyuki omnibus series.)

The third volume of Wild Adapter offers everything I loved about the first two: improbably sexy characters posing through mostly outlandish scenarios, all of which manage to be unexpectedly involving beyond their considerable surface sheen. From time to time, it’s also hysterically, intentionally funny.

There’s a bit in the third volume that I don’t want to spoil, but it made me laugh out loud. It combines everything that I love about the book: deft plotting, high style, and Minekura’s standing as one of manga’s premiere teases.


From the stack: Shortcomings

December 21, 2007

I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed reading about someone’s discomfort quite as much as I did in Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings (Drawn & Quarterly). Ben Tanaka is underemployed and in a relationship that’s clearly on its last legs. He and Miko have reached that phase where they spend more time dissecting each other’s behavior than connecting in any meaningful way. The precision of their criticism and the passivity of their mutual aggression is strangely breathtaking.

Under normal circumstances, it would be simplicity itself to just point and laugh at Ben’s many dysfunctions. His best source of comfort seems to be the reliability of his discontent, his desire for things he doesn’t have and reluctance to let go of what he does, no matter how dissatisfying it may be. So when Miko leaves Berkeley for New York for an internship, Ben is torn between inertia and opportunity.

He takes the opportunity of Miko’s absence to explore an aspect of his nature that he’s spent a lot of energy vehemently denying exists – an attraction to white women. Ben doesn’t really take any pride in his Japanese-American identity, but it still trips him up. It’s another thing to blame when life goes wrong, and something resembling pride bubbles up when it can make an uncomfortable situation worse.

His attempts at courting blondes go about as well as you’d expect, and Tomine isn’t even slightly above punishing Ben for his ambivalence. But Tomine isn’t wagging his finger and saying, “See? This is what happens when you step outside of your comfort zone.” He’s just showing what happens to someone like Ben tries to hedge his bets.

If I didn’t end up liking Ben (he’s a liar and a hypocrite), I did find him absolutely engrossing. He’s a perfectly conceived jerk, and his skill at deflection and contrarianism almost qualifies as a mutant ability. There’s never a “Poor Ben” moment in the book, though Tomine persuades me that Ben’s not entirely to blame for his circumstances. The bits of comeuppance Ben endures are funny and resonant, and I felt like I’d been watching him stumble for years instead of a hundred pages or so.

Add in Tomine’s clean, absorbing art and his pitch-perfect mini-satires of so many worthy targets (the art scene, academia, independent film, and so on), and you’re left with one of the most readable books of the year.


Quick comic comments: Formulas

December 20, 2007

While Del Rey’s X-Men collaboration with Marvel is still a ways down the road, the manga publisher’s Psycho Busters (manga by Akinara Nao, story by Yuya Aoki) accomplishes roughly the same thing. A group of teen psychics is being hunted by a mysterious organization, and they seek out an otherwise average, geeky boy to help them. The most persuasive evidence of their psychic abilities is that they see potential in Kakeru, their dork savior.

The runaways are all naturally occurring or “wild” psychics. Their pursuers seem to have been grown in captivity by their generically menacing overlords. Since this is shônen, first contact is made by the naked astral projection of the nubile telepath of the group. It’s the first example of some strangely halfhearted fan service that’s sprinkled throughout the book. On the bright side, the fan service is relatively equal opportunity. One foe is a naughty schoolgirl. Another is sexy street trash. You can tell they’re bad because both tend to do suggestive things with their tongues.

Bits of Psycho Busters are quite appealing. After a thoroughly generic opening that even Kakeru identifies as by-the-numbers manga fodder, there are some interesting battle sequences. With no apparent psychic abilities, Kakeru has to improvise to keep up with his comrades and survive the attacks of the tongue people. On the whole, though, it’s pretty forgettable stuff. The most fun to be had is finding parallels to early Uncanny X-Men stories, and that only goes so far.

*

My mental jury is still out on Kazune Kawahara’s High School Debut (Viz – Shojo Beat). On the one hand, I’m naturally averse to stories about a girl whose life seems to revolve around finding a boyfriend. (It’s just as tiresome with the genders reversed.) But the girl in this case, former jock Haruna, is just so weird.

After overdosing on shôjo manga, Haruna has decided to pursue romance with the same vigor and methodology she used to master softball. Her initial efforts are completely unsuccessful, so she seeks out a coach in the form of popular, ruthlessly blunt Yoh. It’s kind of a case of those who can’t do teaching; Yoh’s had a bunch of girlfriends, but he’s driven them all away with his excessive honesty. He reluctantly agrees to coach Haruna, provided she promises not to fall in love with him.

The obvious conclusion is that she’ll break her promise, but I hope she doesn’t. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but Kawahara seems intent on derailing her own formula. Determination aside, Haruna seems impervious to the kind of improvement Yoh offers. She even finds a dorky soul mate all on her own, to Yoh’s consternation.

This is where things get tricky. Logical conclusion demands a love match between coach and trainee, but as things stand, that would be utterly unsatisfying. The only way Yoh could emerge as a suitable alternative to Haruna’s other suitor is if the boy (an adorable goof) dies suddenly, to be honest. But I am curious as to where Kawahara is going with all this. If she takes the unexpected path, High School Debut could be a lot of fun.

(Reviews based on complimentary copies provided by the publisher.)