Editorial

Gen Manga: Raw and Unfettered

It seems I have been talking about digital comics quite a bit recently. My evaluations of JManga and a recent Manga Out Loud podcast, as well as my experiences with Viz Media’s manga app for iPad and iPhone, have been changing the way that I read comic books and the way I understand the content. If you had asked me whether or not I would be reading manga digitally three years ago, the only “digital” you could really mean was scanlations, so I would have answered with a resounding no. But now, there are multiple platforms to read manga on and purchase manga in, some more successful than others. I find myself looking at these new content delivery systems as a sort of wave of the future. There are series which I now only follow in digital, and digital comics are more and more a part of my reading experience. Gen Manga is also changing that reading experience.

Gen Manga is a relatively new monthly subscription service from Gen Manga Entertainment which offers chapters of manga of various styles and content structures. This manga is essentially doujinshi written and published first by Gen Manga, so the translation, cleaning, and lettering for the English language are done before the comic is even published for Japanese readers. So there is this sort of mix between doujinshi and what are essentially comics written by Japanese amateur authors for American readers. I will not venture to guess what kind of business model makes this possible, but Gen Manga has been releasing an issue every month and has 3 of the 5 issues available for purchase in print form.

One of the selling points of Gen Manga is the way that content is accessed and delivered. The website is slick and very functional, with a minimal amount of clicks to reach content. All comics are available at all times to read and download, so unlike Yen Plus, you can get the entire backstory and read every single volume currently released. Best of all, comics can be downloaded in PDF format and taken on the go, which is great for people who want mobile content.

Each volume clocks in at approximately 140 pages of content, which, for a monthly subscription of $2.99, is actually quite a steal (you pay how much for Ultimate Spiderman?). There are generally four to five series in each volume; consistently the base content of four different series, and in volumes 4 and 5, a one-shot in addition to the base content.

The four base series are:

Wolf: A boxing manga about a young upstart who wants to beat his father, a retired pro-boxer, in the ring, after he runs away from his family. At first, I thought Wolf was some of the worst written of the crew, but it is developing like a sports manga should, and there have been some good regrouping scenes in the past two volumes that have propped up the series quite a bit. It moves quickly, so don’t expect Adachi’s snail pace – still, it would be nice to see a little character development.

VS Aliens: Suspense/Romance/Sci-Fi story about aliens, crushes, etc. The art style is reminiscent of K-On! and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and plays to the audiences that like those books. VS Aliens is my least favorite of the series from Gen Manga, mostly because the story is just a backdrop for cute talking heads to, well, be cute and talk. The premise is interesting, but goes wacko in Volume 4-5, and not in a good way – just that same tropiness I expect from manga like this.

Kamen: Pretty standard seinen action manga with roots in fantasy and feudal Japanese history. There’s a talking mask, a super-powerful guy, and some evil guys. You can pretty much guess what happens. It’s mindless fun, but it is probably the best illustrated of the four base titles, and has enough action and suspense that you can get over some of the stodgy dialogue.

Souls: A horror/suspense story that feels like Time and Again, but with a much different focus and art style. I read the first two volumes of this one, and I don’t follow it closely – Souls could be fabulous, but I very much disliked Time and Again and my reaction to this is very similar.

The content itself is a little rough around the edges. The editorial direction is assuredly much different here than in other more established publishers, so it feels as though some of the rawness is inherent in the system, which can be quite interesting, if done correctly. Still, having doujinshi writers as your main talent, which can be quite a boon, can also be a stumbling block if the writers and illustrators are new to the art of storytelling and composition in regards to manga. You can see some of this in Gen Manga, because some of the stories move forward in a very awkward way, and it is clear that some of the authors are still learning the trade of making manga. Still, the content is starting to grow on me. Gen is very raw, and for that, it can get by with some of its flaws (for now) because it’s evidently a work in progress. The one-shot series Sorako and Alive are some of my favorite pieces published yet, so I am looking forward to more of the same type of content and maybe even continuations of those stories.

Gen Manga is certainly a step away from the norm. It functions as a gateway between the US and Japan that delivers new content and puts the reader in a very fun and unique situation. I look forward to seeing Gen Manga mature and grow as a content delivery service, and I feel that it represents a new way to view foreign content. Regardless of its longevity, it is an interesting experiment and certainly worth the effort.

Review copies were provided by the publisher. The first three volumes of Gen are available for free at the Gen Manga website.

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Review

Review: A Zoo In Winter

Over the past three years, I have come to admire the work of Jiro Taniguchi. Through The Quest for the Missing Girl and A Distant Neighborhood, I have come to appreciate Taniguchi’s masterful draftmanship, his unique stories, and his strength as both a writer and a cartoonist. Of all his great qualities throughout books adapted by Fanfare/Ponent Mon, I have noticed one key feature, one slight detriment to his impressive works: Taniguchi has a difficulty creating people. His characters are impressively constructed, but like the craggy cliffs and towering skyscrapers he so ornately crafts, they are inscrutable. It is hard to understand their emotions, and their faces are mask-like in quality. And while the beauties of the scene that surround each character are readily apparent, the beauties of the characters themselves are often hidden behind a wall.

In A Zoo in Winter, Taniguchi sets his sights on himself – and thereby, other people.  The focus he puts into drawing the emotions of his characters is equal if not greater than the usual care he devotes to mountains and background bustle of a living city. You can’t tell a memoir (or as close to it as Taniguchi is going to get) without talking about other people, and this is a welcome change for Taniguchi. The book is a de-masking of sorts, and the end result is captivating.

The main character, Hamaguchi, works at a textiles manufacturing company, harboring future dreams of designing custom textiles and being an artist. He spends his time alone, or, when forced, with the daughter of his boss, taking her on excursions. He unwittingly aids and abets her elopement, which causes him to eventually quit his job. After leaving the textile manufacturer, he moves to Tokyo. From there, he takes on a job as a mangaka’s assistant, and becomes part Japan’s comic trade.

We see Hamaguchi struggle with his past – his interaction with his older brother is especially telling, since Hamaguchi is unwilling to believe that he and the old world of his family could ever  be able to connect. His brother, 10 years his senior, descends from what seems like on-high to this 18 year-old artist, and becomes, for a moment, a benevolent, nonjudgmental force in Hamaguchi’s life. This moment of A  Zoo in Winter is especially interesting, because it forces Hamaguchi to develop as a person. He is forced to reconcile his past with his present, and in the end, proves to his brother that what he is doing is something he loves to do. His brother, for his own part, is trying to care for both mother and brother, and in a way that hurts neither of them. It is a well-crafted moment.

As Hamaguchi stumbles from one project to the next under a major mangaka, he is introduced to other aspiring writers, call girls, bar matrons, and revolutionary folk-singers, all of whom redefine the world of Hamaguchi. At points, he loses track of his world and becomes a part of dive bars and nightclubs, full of alcohol and vigor. As he recovers from his poor behavior, he learns the hard way that people are complicated, sometimes broken things.

Hamaguchi’s relationship with his art is a fickle thing. At times he seems divinely inspired, and at other times, is found staring at walls, completely stymied. The newfound manga career of Hamaguchi seems to be at a standstill for quite a bit of time – Taniguchi assures us that this introduction to manga is not a brilliant adventure (like the pages of Bakuman might suggest), but a slow, bumbling journey. Finally, Hamaguchi finds purpose and love in a brilliant mind and a pair of frail arms. His budding relationship and his often child-like behavior when things don’t go his way are very true to life, and so appropriate for his age. He is immature and naive, but still tries to bring his best to the drawing table, and to his relationship with Mari. Together, he and his muse devise a story that can make it to the pages of “Shonen Holiday,” and through her kind and gentle persuasion, he is able to find himself as an artist.

The story of Hamaguchi may be a semi-autobiographical account of Taniguchi and his beginnings as a mangaka, but it delves into the mind and heart, expressing the strength and creativity of the human spirit in its relationship to love. Along the way,  A Zoo in Winter tells us that we must not be afraid to humble ourselves, find ourselves, and live with ourselves. More importantly, it teaches us that we must find the courage to and conviction to live with others.

A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher. A Zoo in Winter makes its international debut at San Diego Comic-Con, July 21st-24th.

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Editorial

The 2010 Manga Widget Gift Guide

Continuing in the tradition of holiday gift giving, especially since some folks have already started to share gifts with friends and family, I have another addition to the list of manga gift guides that have been published this holiday season. Much like last year, I’m keeping most of my categories and picking out some new books for manga fans to try out.
But first – I will not be doing a “Best of” list this season – that list is this gift guide. The books I liked the best are the ones I will encourage you to buy. If you aren’t prepared to gift them, buy yourself a present with the gift card Aunt Sue got you. A good book is better than a Christmas sweater.

Manga Widget Notice: Please note that my list is inclusive of all series, books, and other media currently in and out of print – I did not want to limit myself to this year’s releases. Also know that this list represents my opinion, and not the golden guide to purchasing this season.

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Mainstream Comics fan

You’ve got someone on your list who loves The Fantastic Four or Watchmen, but hasn’t gotten into manga yet. Help them figure out what the manga craze is all about with a few of these seinen comics.

#1) Biomega, Vol. 1; Viz Media Sig IKKI: MSRP $12.99 – From the writer of the acclaimed action-thriller BLAME! comes Biomega, a series featuring a deadly virus that threatens to consume humanity, badass motorcycle stunts, a talking sniper bear, and some pretty spectacular graphics. Part of Viz Media’s Sig IKKI line, this book has an oversized format that is more akin to a normal comic book page size.

#2) DEMO; Vertigo Comics: MSRP $19.99 – Technically not manga, DEMO is what I like to give people before giving them a volume of manga. DEMO is a beautiful collection of short stories written by Brian Wood and illustrated by the extremely talented Becky Cloonan. One of the highlights to this series, besides the fact that it is awesome, is that it comes in black and white. Some comics readers need a transition, and DEMO can be an excellent one. Plus, it’s just good comics.

#3) Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service; Dark Horse Comics: MSRP $10.95 - Sometimes the dead need help to move on to the afterlife, and that’s the job of the Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. Part Sooby Doo, part gristle, part Buddhist comedy, this is a series that defies traditional explanation and is a great book for those who like their humor a little dark.

#4) Gantz, Vol. 1; Dark Horse Comics: MSRP $10.95 – This made my list last year, and for good reason. This dark thriller combines super-human strength, erotic visuals, and some pretty fucked up imagery into an entertaining comics smash-fest. If Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is the filet of manga, Gantz is certainly the junk food. Not for little kids, but if you’re buying for a 18+ friend, this is worth a shot.

One-Shot/Comix

While plenty of indie manga is published in Japan each year, not much of it makes it across the Pacific to be translated and published in the USA. The stuff that does eventually make it is a bit of a grab-bag, but there’s a lot out there to love.

#1) AX, Vol. 1, A Collection of Alternative Manga; Top Shelf MSRP $29.95 – From the obscure to the obscene, AX defies all conventions. As a collection, it has both the sublime and the bizarre contained between its covers, sometimes in the same stories. As a collection, it is almost 400 pages of indie manga, and it’s a pretty quick read.

#2) A Drifting Life; Drawn & Quarterly: MSRP $29.95 -The manga-style autobiography of one of the most influential manga writers, Yoshihiro Tatsumi. The man revolutionized manga in the 1950s by developing the gekiga style of manga – blunt, sometimes traumatic slice-of-life stories that explored the real lives of Japanese citizens after WWII, and the dark underbelly of the booming industrial power that it would become. A repeat from last year, but still a powerful book that deserves to be on every comics lover’s shelf.

#3) The Quest for the Missing Girl; Fanfare/Ponent Mon: MSRP $25.00 – Jiro Taniguchi is one of Japan’s best writers, known for his powerful stories and well-developed characters. Recent releases include A Distant Neighborhood, which has been released in two volumes. The Quest For The Missing Girl is a powerful, 300+ page one-shot that examines the power of guilt and pride on a backdrop of mountain climbing, and it’s perfect for anyone who likes a gripping suspense story.

Classics

These could be powerful manga from years past, or new work breaking out of the comics scene in Japan; either way, these comics are breathtaking and a must read for any manga fan.

#1) Pluto Vol. 1; Viz Media Sig IKKI: MSRP $12.99 – A repeat from last year’s gift guide, the last volume of Pluto, volume 8, was published at the beginning of 2010. Last year I said that Pluto was the series of 2009. Pluto, throughout its run, delivered a powerful and consistent message filled with excellent characterization and suspense, and may well be one of the best series published in 2010. The series is a true wonder, and a great gift for anyone who appreciates Astro Boy, or for anyone who likes a good

#2) Chobits Omnibus, Vol. 1; Dark Horse Comics: MSRP $24.95 – CLAMP is the one supergroup that has had its manga published by almost every publisher in the USA, but its recent releases have tended to be from Dark Horse. A reprint of the series that made its first Enlgish debut in 2002, this omnibus is a great chance to introduce fans of xxxHolic and Tsubasa to an older CLAMP title.

#3) Ayako; Vertical Publishing: MSRP $26.95 – Tezuka, the God of Manga, does it again with this creepy, realistic portrait of post-war Japan and the perversion of the Japanese family and its values. A beautiful book, and one of my favorite manga of 2010, Vertical has printed another of Tezuka’s powerful symbolic manga in a format that is both beautiful on the shelf, and while reading.

Foodie Manga

Everyone loves food, and mangaka love to write about it. Check out these picks for fun food-based manga.

#1) Not Love But Delicious Foods; Yen Press: MSRP $10.99 – Fumi Yoshinaga’s love letter to the Tokyo food scene, this manga gives readers a glimpse into the various places to eat around Tokyo. An excellent gift for someone looking to do a little overseas travelling this season, but also just a good read.

#2) Toriko; Viz Media: MSRP $9.99 – Viz loves to print its food manga, and this book is no exception. Toriko, unlike other food manga, is not just about the meals, but rather, what it takes to get the ingredients to make masterful cuisine. Zany with just the right amount of Pokemon-like “gotta catch ‘em all” to keep you entertained, this is the shonen food comic of the season.

#3) The Antique Bakery, Vol. 1; Digital Manga Publishing: MSRP $12.95 – A repeat from last year, Antique Bakery is a fun comic with a lot of spirit from the great Fumi Yoshinaga. Yoshinaga-sensei loves food, and this, along with  Featuring some of the best looking sweets ever illustrated, Fumi Yoshinaga’s Antique Bakery is part (gay) love triangle, part baking manga.

All Other Manga

Whether you’re into ninjas, love triangles, magic swords, or space travel, these manga are sure to please. I’ve picked a wide variety of books this year, so try something new this Christmas!

#1) Bunny Drop; Yen Press: MSRP $12.99 – Other reviewers have called this the humor-less Yotsuba&!, but it actually is a cute, realistic drama that watches a new adoptive father take over the care of his grandfather’s illegitimate daughter. Unlike Yotsuba&!, also published by Yen Press, this series is more suited to the serious reader, but its charm will win over even those just looking for a laugh.

#2) Arata The Legend; Viz Media Shonen Sunday: MSRP $9.99 – There are plenty of good shonen titles available for purchase this holiday season, but the best new shonen series in my opinion is from the famed Yuu Watase. It follows two different boys named Arata from different dimensions who have been transported in space and time, and now must face the problems the other had in their own dimension. A great fantasy series with a hint of The Labyrinth.

#3) Itazura na Kiss, Vol. 1; Digital Manga Publishing: MSRP $16.95 Itazura na Kiss is probably one of my favorite series in print right now, for multiple reasons. Seen as a sort of genesis for some of the shojo tropes that we’ve become accustomed to here in the US, Itazura na Kiss finally has made it to Western shores in an omnibus format, which is competitively priced and great reading.

#4) Twin Spica, Vol. 1; Vertical Inc: MSRP $10.95 – Of all the titles any manga fan should read this year, Twin Spica should be the one. It is both poignant and fun, and it manages to be heartfelt and interesting at the same time. Bonus points for being about space travel. Vertical has done a great job with the translation and the books look great.

#5) Cross Game, Vol. 1; Viz Media Shonen Sunday: MSRP $19.99 – While normally I’m not a huge fan of sports manga, Cross Game really won my heart this year with its slice of life storytelling and excellent character development.  A story about high-school baseball, Cross Game also examines the lives of a few young students as they grow and mature. Written by Mitsuru Adachi, one of the masters of manga, this 3-volume omnibus is both a good deal and a good read.

Well, that’s it for this year. Hope you find your friends (or yourself) some new manga this holiday season. Happy hunting!

 

EDIT: Apparently some of the links were not going to the right books. This has (hopefully) been fixed.

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