Reviews by Rob Vollmar
There are those among the regular Comics and Manga Worth Reading audiences that have expressed an interest in more information about my reading habits and preferences in order to have more context in which to consider the reviews that I contribute to this site. Ever the populist, I’m only too happy to oblige these noble readers with a short overview of some of my favorites.
As the manager of a Direct Market comics shop (Atomik Pop!: Norman branch), I have access to an astonishing number of comics of every stripe from all over the world. I try to at least thumb through 90% of what comes in every week in the interest of serving my clientele ably. Because of this unfettered access, I tend to research things that I ‘m thinking about buying carefully and, as a result, enjoy most of what I bring home. I like to think of myself as an eclectic reader, balancing my narrative art diet with a dozen or so monthly superhero comics, another dozen manga that I follow on a volume to volume basis, graphic novels from my favorite American lit-cartoonists like Kevin Huizenga, Renee French, and Eddie Campbell when I can get them, and as many collections of comic strips as I can afford.
While a grand survey of all of these fields of interest would no doubt be entertaining to write, it would also guarantee that this document would never, ever be actually finished and, thus, serve you the reading public the least. As I intend to contribute mostly manga reviews to the Comics/Manga Worth Reading hub, I figured I could start with just my manga recommendations with the idea that said list could be expanded to include these other interests should time and circumstance warrant it.
On a week to week basis, I read more shoujo manga than anything else. I rationalize this two different ways. Number one, shonen manga often revolves around themes and visual tricks that I’ve already read to death in superhero comics. Superpowered being fights monstrous evil to save the world? Done that, been there. Young girl leaves home to enter the high pressure world of international ballet? Even Grant Morrison’s Batman hasn’t tried this one. Number two, the wife likes to read manga as well and I’m always inclined to save money by picking something that we both can enjoy. As a student of history and an enthusiastic consumer of manga, I’m always open to historically rich stories as well as historically significant manga of any kind. That said, here’s a few of my favorite manga.
1. Lone Wolf and Cub by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima. Available in 28 volumes from Dark Horse, I’ve given up waiting for any manga reading experience that can match Lone Wolf in scope, intensity, or educational value. Lone Wolf and Cub, the epic saga of a dishonored samurai’s complex plot to take revenge on his enemies and restore his family name, sets the bar on historical fiction in narrative art ridiculously high. It is also fascinating to study as one of the few celebrated collaborative efforts in manga as an artform. The interplay between Koike’s narrative and Kojima’s expressive brushwork is truly one of the highwater marks for narrative art as a medium in the 20th century and is a must-read for any serious student of the craft of making manga.
2. Astro Boy by Osamu Tezuka. Also from Dark Horse is this groundbreaking series from the God of Manga himself, Osamu Tezuka. Although Astro Boy is not my favorite Tezuka series available in English (that honor falling to Vertical’s Buddha followed hotly by Viz’s Phoenix cycle), it is the most fun and accessible of the three. More serious readers may be put off by the formulaic aspects necessitated by the rigors of creating a work like this over the course of three decades but, pound for pound, the imagination and cartooning mastery on display here is enough to earn Astro Boy a foundational slot when considering of Tezuka’s work as a whole. Volumes 6-8 are far and away my favorites and would be a great place to sample before committing to the other twenty volumes of the series.
3. Saikano by Shin Takahashi. There is no doubt that one of my favorites things about manga is how amazingly morose it can be. Shin Takahashi’s Saikano, a story of ill-fated love set against the backdrop of terminal world war, relentlessly piles insult on to emotional injury in its exploration of the toll that indiscriminate warring takes on the regular people who end up fighting and dying from it. Throw in emo-mech themes first cultivated in Neon Genesis Evangelion and Takahashi’s apparent determination to create a shonen manga that often quacks like shoujo, and you get a manga with a little something that appeals to everyone. The pacing is reallllllly decompressed in comparison to the anime but if you ever wondered what a Depeche Mode manga might read like, this is your huckleberry. Get this from Viz now before chunks of it start falling out of print!!
4. Swan by Kyoko Ariyoshi. One of the only DC/CMX manga I read, Swan is the better of two dance manga available in English. Swan, as obliquely referenced in my opening statements, is about a young girl who ascends the ladder of professional ballet dancers and performs under high-pressure circumstances to people all over the world. The first and strongest appeal of Swan is Ariyoshi’s stunning linework and sequential prowess on display in each and every panel. Simply put, this is some visually startling manga will turn aside even the most entrenched belief that manga artists are somehow deficient in comparison to their Western counterparts. Ariyoshi uses Swan not only to develop her characters and themes but also to teach about the history of ballet as well as make an impressive case for the cultural importance in sustaining its practice. The story is very melodramatic but Ariyoshi always delivers real substance when it matters. There is a sequence in Book Five that stands as an uncharacteristically vulnerable moment when Ariyoshi seems to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the reader about the perils and pleasures of being a creative artist that is very moving and cemented my already high assessment of this series. Highly recommended for readers of any age.
5. Sugar Sugar Rune by Moyoco Anno. When I first heard that ADV was planning to release an all-ages magical girl series from Moyoco Anno, author of bawdy josei manga like Happy Mania and Flowers and Bees, I was certain that someone at ADV was definitely smoking banana peels on the job. [Edit: It’s actually Del Rey that publishes this.] How could punky, scratchy Moyoco Anno possibly create manga that would be acceptable for an all-ages reader in the United States? The answer, revealed upon opening the cover of the first volume, is that she does it with a completely unexpected quantum leap of creative genius that resulted in one my favorite manga. Sugar Sugar Rune is the story of two extremely cute little witches who come to the mortal plane in order to compete in a heart-collecting competition that will decide which of them will someday become Queen of the magical realm. On the one hand, it is amazing to me how blatantly Anno has designed this series to optimize its stories and characters in a variety of media. It borrows philosophically from other mega-cash cows like Dragonball Z, Pokemon, and Yu Gi Oh with its game-inside-of-a-story structure and imminently merchandisable character design. This might be cause for concern if the story and art in Sugar Sugar Rune wasn’t so groundbreaking, but, lucky for everyone, it is. Whether by hard work or by hiring better assistants, Anno transforms her early manic art style into the lushest, most inviting manga on the market right now. Her page layouts, which are undoubtedly not the work of assistants, are incredibly dense and pack tons of information into every page. More importantly, the evolving story in SSR is anything but stock material and should convince even the most cynical reader that cute doesn’t have to mean stupid.
6. Pet Shop of Horrors by Matsuri Akino. Pet Shop of Horrors is the story of an androgynous man-pire named Count D who runs an arcane pet shop in the Asian district of San Francisco. In it, Akino mixes a number of genres and conventions together to end up with a very satisfying brew of bishonen horror told largely in self-contained stories. Though there is a larger story thread that winds its way through all ten volumes, the individual segments are organized around the arcane pets (that often appear as human to their new owners and other sensitive folk) that D is dealing and the moral lessons that accompany them. The writing in Pet Shop is routinely solid and packs the narrative punch of your average Tales from the Crypt story with the same horroriffic twist at the end. The real lure here, though, is Akino’s immaculate linework and visual meditations on a wide array of fauna. She really embodies the contemporary tradition that extends from the decadent shoujo artists like Ariyoshi while keeping her layouts and embellishments looking current and fresh.
7. Maison Ikkoku by Rumiko Takahashi. Maison Ikkoku isn’t the only Takahashi manga that I enjoy but it is the one that I enjoy most. Completely eschewing the fantastic story elements that characterize her more popular series, Maison Ikkoku is a romantic comedy with an ensemble cast of social misfits that share living space in the maison in question. What makes MI great is the underpinning of serious consequences that pile up beneath the comedy as a hapless young college student tries to win the affections of the young widow that runs the house for her departed husband’s family. While their mutual attraction is never far from the focus of the story, there is doubt up until the last fateful volume as to whether or not the young Godai will be able to overcome his own tendency to self-destruct at the worst possible moment. Takahashi’s art here may lack some of the dynamism of her more popular series like Inu Yasha or the most excellent, Mermaid Saga but, for my manga dollar, Maison Ikkoku shines as THE contemporary blueprint for romantic comedies in manga.