Azumanga Daioh Omnibus
Not your typical manga, the Azumanga Daioh Omnibus by Kiyohiko Azuma (collecting four previously published books) follows a group of high school girls through school until graduation. With a few exceptions, the entire book consists of four-panel strips… so this is more like a Japanese version of a Dilbert collection than your usual high-school romance.
At first, I took them lightly, as slight gag strips that told a joke and moved on. It surprised me later on to notice how much character development was happening in the sum of the parts. The book makes up in volume (almost 700 pages!) what can’t be done in detail in only four panels. Reading the whole thing is like living with these girls for four years, and they become friends, not only to each other, but to the reader.
Each chapter is a new month, with the typical events of the corresponding time of year. When first introduced to the girls, some I could only keep straight through different hairstyles. As I spent more time with them, though, they became more distinctive, and they developed more varied characteristics. I especially liked finding out that tall, intense Sakaki had a weakness for small, cute animals. That humanized her a lot.
The first character seen is a teacher who behaves inappropriately like a student, with no sense of self-restraint. I found her annoying, but there’s also a certain appeal to her lack of discretion. As a fantasy, the idea of behaving like that would be fun, without worrying what anyone else thought or how they were affected. As a counterpart to her immaturity, transfer student Chiyo is only ten years old but much smarter than her age. She visually resembles the title character of author Kiyohiko Azuma’s later work Yotsuba&! There’s also Tomo, who’s insanely energetic but unfocused, and Osaka, who in this Americanized version speaks like she’s from Brooklyn to indicate the stereotypes about her region.
The book’s quite funny, using a wide range of techniques. There are pratfalls and other pieces of physical comedy; the humor of counter expectations, where the reader expects one thing but gets the opposite (as with scary Sakaki’s adoption of cute little pets, even when they get the better of her); sheer goofiness, as some of the characters do ridiculous things (especially the teacher); and the exaggeration of taking things too literally. At times, the jokes become surreal, with a character dreaming about Chiyo’s pigtails detaching and being used as the shapes they’re drawn as. There’s something here for everyone, and at a great value, too. (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)