January 2008

Jeff VanderMeer


The Best Manga of All Time


Since I'm still sorting through several boxes of manga from Tokyopop and others, and deciding what I think of it all, I decided to ask librarian Robin Brenner -- who runs the website No Flying No Tights and has written a book on the subject, in addition to serving as an Eisner judge -- for her top ten manga of all time for this column. Her choices are listed below, and you can also read an interview with her in this installment of Bookslut. Next time, the best graphic novels of 2007. As always, send comments, complaints, and mutterings to vanderworld at hotmail.com. Materials for review should be sent to Bookslut and to me at: POB 4248, Tallahassee, FL 32315.


Robin Brenner's Top Manga

Antique Bakery by Fumi Yoshinaga
Digital Manga

Yoshinaga has quickly become of my favorite manga creators, and Antique Bakery is very much the reason for that. She has the ability to turn on a dime from laugh out loud comedy to remarkably touching emotional scenes. Her art is spare and therefore very precise about what she chooses to show, and I have yet to see another creator so eloquent with pacing and gesture. She deftly illuminates everything from the pain of unrequited love to the satisfaction of creating the perfect pastry. While the story features the most tempting descriptions of pastries (and makes every reader wish there was just such a bakery staff with beautiful men down the street), the true heart of the book shows how people create families out of their coworkers, and how strong those bonds can be. I’m also pleased to report that this is a series that all kinds of readers seem to enjoy, even those that don’t normally like manga.

Clover by CLAMP

This is actually the first manga I sat down and read. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a bit of an experiment for the famous all-woman group CLAMP. The tale, a science fiction story of genetically engineered people as weapons, peppered with bursts of violent action and meditations on the nature of love, works more like visual poetry than traditional dialogue. CLAMP has always been masters of design, and the details in costume and panel placement show why (their current series Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle and XXXholic show off their talents equally well.) Sadly, it’s out of print now. (Although with all these omnibus editions of titles coming out from Tokyopop, I’m hoping they might reprint it… please, Tokyopop?)

Death Note by Takeshi Obata and Tsugumi Ohba
VIZ Media

This is possibly one of the talkiest manga out there -- the speech bubbles seem to take over panel after panel -- but with Tsugumi Ohba’s stellar art and a crackerjack mystery plot, you barely notice just how much time has passed. The unsettling cat and mouse game between the righteous killer Light and the oddball but brilliant detective L is riveting, and seldom does a story keep you so carefully torn on who you want to triumph in the end. Ohba’s art is dark and delicate at the same time, and who knew there were so many ways to make extended conversations exciting?

Lone Wolf and Cub by Kazuo Koike
Dark Horse

I’m a sucker for samurai stories, and from this masterpiece all modern samurai manga flows. Kazuo Koike’s story zeroes in on honor, betrayal, revenge, and loyalty all while following a samurai and his young son across the landscape of Feudal Japan. Koike’s art is far from the polish and slick design of typical manga creators, but every line is beautiful and deliberate, and every moment, from brutal fights to the rare moments of calm, is poignant. Dark Horse as a publisher puts out great seinen works, and takes some much appreciated risks with its titles.

Monster by Naoki Urasawa
VIZ Media

When the brilliant Dr. Tenma defies hospital politics to save a poor boy over operating on the town’s mayor, he unwittingly sets into motion of events that will haunt him for years. For not only will he lose his job and his social status, but that young boy will grow up to become his worst nightmare. Urusawa’s take on the serial killer trope is gripping, especially as it shows the way Tenma is slowly driven to madness from afar by his charming, sadistic nemesis. Few manga really force you to run out and get the next volume as soon as possible, but Urusawa is a master at twists and turns that leave you hungry for more.

Paradise Kiss by Ai Yazawa

While I was neither a model nor a fashion design student, this series calls out to all the arty outsiders who rebelled from high school normalcy and decided it was time to stop caring what other people think. Ai Yazawa’s lanky character design and immaculate sense of fashion makes each volume a spectacle to look at, but beneath the façade is a strong coming of age story. Everything from self-confidence to bittersweet first love is covered, but Yazawa avoids the sparkles and rosy resolutions of most shojo tales and instead illuminates a realistic tale of the experiences that make one teen girl into a woman, even if she’s not quite ready for it.

Planetes by Makoto Yukimura

Just to reassure you all that I’m not all about girly comics, I must include this compelling science fiction tale. I grew up reading my dad’s collection of 1950s-1970s classic science fiction novels, and since then I have a soft spot for sincere science fiction. This tale of space garbage collectors may not sound like something you should run out and buy, but it is by far one of my favorite takes on space exploration. It’s not about space aliens or intergalactic wars -- it’s about the wonder and tedium of space, the families we build out of like-minded companions, and the very human need to explore. It’s also very possible -- no improbable techno babble here, just a direct extension of what our own space programs have accomplished.

Yotsuba&! by Kiyohiko Azuma
ADV Manga

There are very few series where I finish every volume with a smile and a sense that all is right with the world, but Yotsuba&! is definitely one of them. Centering around a naïve and energetic five year-old, this is one of those books that’s all about the everyday wonder kids feel without even trying. It never fails to make me laugh, especially when Yotsuba is contending with new ideas (like doorbells) or playing gangsters. I just ignore the fact that it’s published in a magazine aimed at twenty-year old men. Just… don’t think about that too hard.

Ghost in the Shell by Shirow Masamune
Dark Horse Comics

Masamune is famous for dense science fiction plots (so dense, in fact, he often indulges in numerous footnotes to explain the technical aspects of whatever device he’s using in a particular scene.) Ghost in the Shell is still my favorite of all his works. Not only does Major Motoko remain one of the most intelligent and fierce female characters in manga (and thus I can ignore that she walks around in what amounts to an armored bustier), but the complicated questions surrounding how much man and technology may eventually merge is still compelling after almost twenty years. The setting is filled with detail and intensifies the labyrinthine politics and crimes the Section 9 security unit tangles with, and anything that gets so technical and still makes the reader care has achieved quite a feat.