published by Viz
Here are my thoughts on the latest volumes of a bunch of favorite Viz Manga titles.
Bakuman Book 7
story by Tsugumi Ohba, art by Takeshi Obata, $9.99, out now
This series demonstrates the virtue of sticking with a story that shows promise, since it’s gone from an intriguing premise with some serious problems to one of my most-anticipated manga reads. It’s just so involving, with its struggling protagonists and their goal of becoming successful manga-ka.
Of course, purporting to show the behind-the-scenes of making manga is catnip to manga readers. Many comic readers have dreamed of making their own, and this allows them to live that life vicariously. It’s impressive that it’s so dramatic and emotion-packed, but when you think about these kids, putting out serialized chapters and graphic novels while still in high school, that’s a setup fraught with possibility. Heck, one of them has already risked his life to make their business successful, even though the sacrifice doesn’t turn out as they expected.
The guys are struggling to find a new manga concept that will be successful while clashing with a sometimes-oblivious new editor more concerned about his future with the company than what’s best for them. They’re no longer convinced that he knows what they need or is skilled as an editor, so they challenge him while seeking their own path. At the same time, they’re working to get into college, so they can then coast for a few more years while making comics.
I’m impressed by how dense this feels because of all the text. I’m more story-driven than art-driven in my reading, so I enjoy how much conversation goes on, between the characters debating their choices and laying out rules for making manga. Don’t get me wrong, the visuals are extremely impressive in how exciting they make everyday life. The artist is even paid a compliment early on when the creators are talking about how “the best manga artist is one who can draw ordinary everyday life in an interesting way.”
I also adore the goofy Eiji Nizuma, the young competitor who’s already hit his success. He’s asked to judge a manga contest by the editors, and his exaggerated focus on exactly what he likes is great. There’s a lot of discussion about gag manga, what they need, and how a kid audience reacts to them, which gave me plenty of background on a genre I previously wasn’t all that familiar with.
Cross Game Book 5
by Mitsuru Adachi, $14.99, out October 11
Speaking of shonen manga favorites, here’s the latest issue of this sports competition story. This double-length volume (printed as books 10 and 11 in Japan) shows Ko and his team in a regional tournament.
I’m very impressed by the artwork — the closeups on player’s expressions, the skewed panels during key action sequences, the isolated elements of an action from player to stance to ball to swing to result — but I admit, having read the previous volume over the summer, I didn’t recall details on who any of the players were. I recommend reading the series in large chunks to keep the drama high and the cast straight.
This is a book for those willing to wallow in the details of the game — sometimes, I’d rather just know who wins and then get back to the character development. That’s why Viz double-sizes these books, I think. Here, the entire first half of the book is all one game. If released at traditional size, it’d take much too long for the American patience to move events along. But as it is, the second half provides the characterization I was looking for, as the cast deals with the playoff’s outcome.
There are some new developments as well. A noodle shop is moving in, and the daughter resembles what Wakaba would have looked like if she’d lived to that age. (Subtle comment on the expectations of appearance for girls of a certain age, or just a storytelling shortcut?) When the summer festival takes place (which coincides with the anniversary of Wakaba’s passing), the new girl’s looks cause quite the reaction among her neighbors.
This event demonstrates one of Adachi’s best tactics. He doesn’t have the characters tell the reader what they’re thinking; instead, he juxtaposes panels in such a way that it’s clear to us what’s going on. We’re smarter than they are, which gives us an investment in seeing them realize what we already understand. (Although at times, I do wish that everyone wasn’t quite so clueless about Ko and Aoba ending up together, since it can feel like it’s being dragged out just to fill out the series.)
My favorite sequence is a wordless two-pager where the pet cat, chasing a fly, bounces around the house. It’s funny but also meaningful in its symbolism. Plus, the cat is adorable.
The Story of Saiunkoku Book 5
art by Kairi Yura, story by Sai Yukino, $9.99, out November 1
Switching gears, if I’m to wallow in character detail, I’d much rather do so in this historical shojo. For some reason, I can keep the various pretty boys here separate much more easily than I can the baseball teammates, probably because the guys here don’t all dress alike.
The normally sturdy Shurei has caught a cold, and everyone’s falling over themselves to help her recover. That means plenty of men assembled to help look for a missing child, conveniently, while the Emperor pines over the sleeping, ailing Shurei.
She’s got to get better so she can take the Imperial Civil Exam. A lot is riding on her — beyond her life-long dreams of becoming a civil servant, she’s also the first woman to be allowed to take the exam, and her performance has the potential to change expectations for her entire society. Of course, she’s more fixated on others than herself, so it isn’t a surprise when she takes a boy, come to the city to take the exam, under her wing. The boy, however, has his own surprises, including a kind of multiple personality.
The story can be jumpy and often we’re told more than we’re shown, but I enjoy the wackiness of everything moving so quickly. Somehow, this book includes gangsters, a spoiled rich kid with a crush on Shurei, and the city’s most well-known courtesan, all who come together in a bizarre mob-style showdown. (And several of whom have known Shurei for years, although we’ve never heard of them before.) This book does change genres quickly. Much like the weather in certain areas, if you don’t like a chapter, just wait a bit, and you’ll have something different soon. I do think I’m ready for her to get back with the Emperor soon, though, because I love their fumbling romance, as we’re reminded in the side story included in this volume.
Kingyo Used Books Book 4
by Seimu Yoshizaki, $12.99, out October 18
Stepping into the pages of this manga bookstore and meeting several of their varied customers is always relaxing. It’s nice to spend time, even if fictional, with those who share my interests in manga, even if they’re reading books I’ve never heard of before.
My favorite is the first chapter, about a tutor trying to help his student, a boy who claims he doesn’t like manga because he hasn’t yet found the right one for him. Really, he’s putting on an attitude of being uncaring because his ability to make his own choices hasn’t been respected. I wish this story had gone on longer, because I felt like there were connections still to be made. I also wanted to know more about the speech one of the booksellers makes, about the virtues of horror manga, since I don’t care for that genre myself. I got just a glimpse of what its appeal could be, but there seemed more to be said.
Yoshizaki sketches her characters economically, but with enough hints that you can understand the personalities and what they’re looking for quickly. Sometimes the manga is almost incidental, as mention of a title shared between two old men remembering their protestor days in the 60s, or sometimes it’s essential, as with the story of a guy with a crush on a girl who loves manga. Their shared enjoyment of Ranma ½ is adorable, especially when he geeks out and buys the whole series.
The followup chapter explores another area of fandom, as a stereotypical geek sounds off at the handsome men at the bookstore. He needs his hobby to give him purpose, and having them “invade” when they already have so much else going for them makes him jealous. He shows up again later as an amateur investigator, helping a kid stop an arsonist attacking used book stores. That was a fun story, and it reminded me of one of the things I like about Yoshizaki’s art — how well she draws people discovering a moment of happiness or peacefulness. In this case, it’s both, as a stressed kid enjoys a manga (by Moto Hagio) that relaxes him enough that he drifts off into a nap.
I was astounded to be reminded of the age of manga in the last chapter. I think of it as dating back to the 80s, when it first came to the U.S., or to the 60s, when thinking about some of Vertical’s Tezuka reprints, but one story here involves manga first released in the 20s and 30s, which makes it older than superhero comics. (I know, I should know that, but it didn’t really sink home until now.) The message of that story, about how manga can follow and support people throughout their lives, is something we only dream of for American comics. We’re closer, but there’s still a way to go.
20th Century Boys Book 17
by Naoki Urasawa, $12.99, out October 11
I’m finding this series really frustrating lately, as I want to know more about what happens next, and Urasawa is instead giving us flashbacks. Except they’re too skilled to be called that, really, as he draws portraits of life under plague. Families are split apart by death and villainy while survivors suffer in concentration camps. Urasawa is clearly building an epic, and there are still plenty of volumes to go, but I miss the core cast and I’m ready for the last big showdown.
Here, we get some new kid characters — a brother and sister made aware that Kanna’s resistance group has a spy in their midst — and the question of whether the resistance should call off their action or force ahead even if the overlords know their plans.
Also frustrating is the way that the cliffhanger from Book 15 is still the cliffhanger for this book, in a new form. If Urasawa’s work weren’t so darn well-drawn, I’d suggest that two volumes is an excruciating amount of time to make readers wait to find out what happened, but at least there are plenty of really pretty drawings of really ugly things — murders, sewers — to watch while we wait.
By focusing on the end, I’m probably approaching this in a way that’s completely wrong, culturally. I can’t even imagine what this would be like reading serialized.
(The publisher provided most of the above as review copies.)