Best Manga of 2011
Using the same methods I used last year for the Best Manga of 2010, here are the manga I most enjoyed and anticipated this year. I’m using a highly idiosyncratic definition of “best”, based mostly on what I looked forward to, wanted to re-read, and/or was willing to buy sight unseen. I have a few subcategories, under which I’ve ranked a maximum of five titles, with #1 being best. (Although in no category could I manage to fill out all five; I’m either becoming more selective, or the industry cutbacks are taking their toll.) Links take you to reviews of the titles.
Best New Manga
- A Bride’s Story (Yen Press, 2 volumes so far) — Simply gorgeous historical work about the life of a woman newly married into another tribe in central Asia centuries ago. Kaoru Mori previously created Emma, about a Victorian maid, so she clearly loves her research.
- Wandering Son (Fantagraphics, 2 volumes so far) — Shimura Takako sensitively portrays the lives of transgender teens in a quietly ground-breaking series.
- The Secret Notes of Lady Kanoko (Tokyopop, 2 volumes) — This manga isn’t as significant or important as the two above, and there were only two books released before it prematurely ended (with the demise of its publisher), but boy, it was a good read. Ririko Tsujita captures the politics of school life through the eyes of an outsider who isn’t nearly as remote as she likes to think she is, which is part of the fun.
- The Drops of God (Vertical, 1 volume so far) — In a more fruitful year, I wouldn’t have included this series by Tadashi Agi and Shu Okimoto, because it’s got some significant flaws, but it’s definitely the kind of manga many people want to read. The subject, wine, is fascinating, and the book educates the reader about qualities of the grape and fancy labels to know. I have hopes that the second book, out this week, will improve on some of the stiff art and stodgy plotting.
Best Continuing Manga
- Ooku: The Inner Chambers (Viz, Book 6 out this year) — I rediscovered this stunning historical fantasy by Fumi Yoshinaga this year, and once again I found myself swept away by its lyrical re-imagining of a female-ruled Japan and the resulting male harem. Titillating premise aside, the real meat of the story is politics and how it forces a separation among love, sex, feelings, and purpose. That’s timely at any time.
- Bakuman (Viz, Books 3-8 out this year) — Its gender politics are hopelessly retrograde, but I can’t help it, this story of an aspiring team of manga creators is both gripping and informative. I eager devour each new chapter of their (sometimes exaggerated) career ups and downs, especially since creators Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata know whereof they speak.
- Yotsuba&! (Yen Press, Book 10 out this year) — Always charming, even if there was only one volume this year of the wide-eyed discoveries of a little girl. Kiyohiko Azuma has surrounded his character with amusing family and neighbors; like them, I’m inspired by Yotsuba’s imagination.
- Bunny Drop (Yen Press, Books 3-4 out this year) — Another family series, but this one by Yumi Unita is a tad more realistic and sentimental. An excellent gift for anyone who’s ever thought, “They grow up so fast.”
Best Completed Manga
- Stargazing Dog (NBM) — There was a noticeable lack of single-volume manga this year — perhaps publishers feel that a series gets them more return on their marketing — but this one stood out for its melancholy look at a normal man’s life and the love of a pet.
- Sand Chronicles (Viz) — This everyday love story concluded with Book 8, out in 2010, but the epilogue tenth volume released this year reassured us the kids we watched grow up had satisfying adulthoods.
- Hikaru no Go (Viz) — It could have gone on with more tournaments (and I wondered if maybe it should have), but Books 22 and 23 bid farewell to Hikaru and all the many other go players we’d met across the world.
Every year, I struggle with what to call this last category, of books I want to talk about but not recommend. This year, I settled on “noble failures” because all of them had qualities I wanted to support while not quite executing on them as I’d hoped.
- Sailor Moon and Princess Knight — Having historically significant manga available, especially those that were instrumental in developing shojo, is terrific and a wonderful way to educate yourself. Actually reading them? Not so much, not for entertainment for today’s reader, anyway.
- Butterflies, Flowers — Yay for more manga for adult female readers. But next time, could we leave the culturally specific outrageous exaggeration back in Japan? This was supposed to be a comedy, but it was too often unfunny and distasteful in what we were supposed to accept as humorous premises, layered with explicit sex scenes as some kind of distraction. The series ended with Book 8 this year, and I was glad to see it go, because then I could stop masochistically going back to see if it had gotten any better.
- Mangaman — I was hoping to see more manga readers comment on this book, but it doesn’t seem to have been talked about much. It’s a dynamite concept, blending manga and American comic conventions, that tries to do too much at once.
- The Stellar Six of Gingacho — Listed mainly so I can once again berate Tokyopop for throwing in the towel just when they were publishing some of the best titles of their company’s life. Now, these books we were just getting to know are even less likely to be licensed again over here, since few companies want to deal with cleaning up after someone else.