For the purpose of this post, I’m using a highly idiosyncratic definition of “best”, based mostly on what I looked forward to and enjoyed re-reading. (This year, given the economy, I also considered whether I’d buy series volumes sight unseen, whether I was entertained enough to feel they were worth gambling the money on.) I have a few subcategories, under which I’ve ranked a maximum of five titles, with #1 being best. Links take you to reviews of the titles.
Best New Manga
- All My Darling Daughters — A stunning exploration of women’s lives and relationships by Fumi Yoshinaga, my favorite manga-ka. I don’t think I’ve seen before in comics an exploration of how difficult it can be for mother and daughter to learn to relate as adults, each a person in her own right.
- Bunny Drop by Yumi Unita — Man adopts his previously unknown six-year-old aunt, and the two together learn to grow up. Wonderful in its diverse emotions, from the expected comedy through more poetic moments.
- Not Love But Delicious Foods — As I said in my review, it’s as though this manga was created just for me. Another work by Fumi Yoshinaga, combining relationship observations with restaurant reviews and cracks about the comic business in Japan. Must reading for any of her yaoi fans for the chapter in which she apologizes to a gay man.
- A Drunken Dream & Other Stories — Fantagraphics enters the licensed manga business with an historically important overview of Moto Hagio’s short shojo. You may also want to listen to our podcast on the book, where we talk about each chapter.
Runners-up in this category included Twin Spica, Saturn Apartments, Kingyo Used Books, and Chi’s Sweet Home, but each had a caveat that made me think “not quite”. Chi started in a way I didn’t care for, for example, and Twin Spica changed directions a bit too often between science fiction and shojo classroom stories. Still, look at how many options there are for adult manga readers — not a shonen battle or schoolgirl romance in the bunch! Although there were plenty of fine examples of both out this year, too.
The single-volume anthology was a welcome trend of this year, and I hope we see more of them. It’s a great way to see more of an author’s work, and it’s a pleasure to get such good value without signing on for a perhaps-lengthy series.
Best Continuing Manga
- Suppli — I finally twigged to this series by Mari Okazaki with this year’s combined volume 4/5, and now I can’t wait to read more of this working woman’s love life. It well captures much of the pressures single women of a certain age feel.
- Nana — I’m assuming that the 21st volume, the last published both here and in Japan, won’t be the last — I’ve got to know how the cliffhangers end and how the musicians settle into adulthood. Ai Yazawa has put the series on hold for some recuperation time, but I pray she returns better than ever. It’s an astoundingly good soap opera with some heartbreakingly complex characters.
- Ooku: The Inner Chambers — I’m woefully behind writing about this Fumi Yoshinaga series, needing to catch up on all three volumes, books 3-5, that came out this year. It’s because the historical alternative fiction is so complex in its relationships among the men kept for the shogun’s pleasure that it deserves extra time and attention. The books out this year jump even further back in time to the establishment of the male harem, showing how quickly whims become tradition.
- Yotsuba&! — Thanks to Yen Press for continuing Kiyohiko Azuma’s charming all-ages series, with books 8 and 9 out in 2010. Always a welcome reminder of the virtue of wide-eyed enthusiasm. It’s too bad that we didn’t have any volumes of Aria this year to keep it company.
- The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service by Eiji Otsuka and Housui Yamazaki — I rediscovered this series just recently, and I’m loving its black humor and zombie sense of justice. Best endnotes in the business, too, as adaptor Carl Gustav Horn is given reign to free associate. Volumes 10 and 11 came out this year.
Best Completed Manga
- Pluto — Heartbreaking in its achievement, I wish it could have gone on far longer than its eight books, but part of the skill demonstrated by Naoki Urasawa is knowing how to wrap things up. The best counter-argument to the idea that some stories are too silly to take seriously, it’s astounding that this stunning contemplation of humanity is based on a kids’ Astro Boy comic.
- Oishinbo a la Carte by Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki — Is hoping for more volumes of this foodie favorite, surveying the best of Japanese cuisine, futile? Seven just weren’t enough, and the last book, covering Pub Food, is one of the best.
- The Name of the Flower — I’m glad CMX got Ken Saito’s series completed (with the fourth volume) before it was ended as an imprint, and this mention is also in honor of their line. They were bringing out some particularly entertaining titles just before the end, which made their closing all the more disappointing.
- High School Debut — The final thirteenth volume got back to the fun and appeal of this light-hearted romance by Kazune Kawahara about a tomboy and her “love coach”.
- Flower in a Storm — My love for this romantic adventure, only two books, by Shigeyoshi Takagi didn’t seem to be widely shared, but I thought it was a hoot, just the kind of escapism I like.
Honorable Mentions and Guilty Pleasures
The most fun I had with manga this year was Manga Out Loud, the podcast started by site contributor Ed Sizemore. My thanks to him for inviting me to co-host while he does all the work, arranging some excellent conversations with a wonderful group of guests.
I don’t pretend any of these other series are great art, but I do enjoy reading them every time a new book appears: Inubaka: Crazy for Dogs put out volumes 15-17; Sand Chronicles completed the main story in books 7 and 8 with a side volume 9 also released; and Otomen had four books out, 5-8. I also liked Bakuman much more than some, enjoying the look inside the Japanese manga industry.
In my Best of 2008, I had a “Most Disappointing” category, and I did some “griping” in my Best of 2009, but this year, nothing struck me as unpleasant enough to even bring it up. I’m doing better at not wasting my time with the stuff that’s not that good, I guess. With so much wonderful work out, why not focus on the enjoyable and accomplished?