Review

by Carlo Santos, Jul 30th 2007

Manga

The Complete Guide

Review:
Manga: The Complete Guide

It's hard to imagine a reference book being highly addictive, but Manga: The Complete Guide accomplishes just that. In one bumper volume, Jason Thompson and his crack team of writers present synopses and reviews of every manga ever translated into English, as well as a number of informative articles. It's all too easy for a fan to pop into the book, look up one of their favorite series, flip past another familiar name along the way, start comparing similar artists and titles, maybe stop by one of the articles to read up on a favorite genre—see how addictive this can get? The guide proves to be a vital resource for readers at all levels: newbies looking to branch out, veterans filling up gaps in their knowledge base, and High Supreme Otaku plunging into the most obscure corners of fandom lore. Needless to say, anyone who loves manga at all should be picking up this book.

For a guide like this to work in the first place, some basic principles need to be laid down. The most obvious—"What is manga?"—is still a topic of argument for many, but Thompson is quick to mark his boundary lines: comics from Japan, by Japanese creators, for a Japanese audience, that have been licensed for publication in English. "Cine-manga" screenshot collages don't count. Korea, China and Taiwan don't count. Manga-influenced works by artists of any other nationality don't count. Magazines and periodicals with manga in them don't count.

Thompson does allow for foreign collaborations with Japanese artists, though, which makes for a couple of questionable inclusions like Tokyopop's comic-by-committee Princess Ai and a number of Marvel Comics spinoffs. Anthologies also prove to be something of a gray area: Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators makes it, despite being half-French by birth; meanwhile, Range Murata's artist-jam project Robot is puzzlingly left out—possibly because it's almost a periodical and an artbook in some respects. In general, though, if it's a Japanese comic that's been translated into English, it's found in here. Even Kodansha's short-lived bilingual line counts, so now's the time to check up on those classics like Doraemon and Sazae-san.

The book's encyclopedia format serves it very well here: each work is listed alphabetically by title, followed by original Japanese name, author(s), publishers (in Japan and abroad), dates of publication, number of volumes, genre, and age rating. Sure, this is all stuff you could look up on a website, but no website will ever give you the joy of just flipping through randomly, discovering titles both obscure and familiar. Sample artwork is a bit sparse—for such a strongly visual medium, it's a bit disheartening to see maybe one excerpt of a well-known series every 20 pages—but that's not really the point anyway. What comes in most useful are the plot summaries and reviews, even if the latter is inevitably colored by the tastes of Thompson and his staff.

Certain biases creep into the review portion, although in some cases they are justified: anything "old" and "classic" seems to get an automatic 4 stars out of 4; anything "edgy" seems to get a free pass just for being different; certain big-name hits earn full marks even if they're not the pinnacle of artistic achievement (Naruto, 4 out of 4? As one of the greatest shounen works, sure, as one of the greatest manga ever ... hmm). Just to keep things balanced, though, a number of other fan favorites do get crushingly low ratings as well. The actual reviews help to provide justification for the numbers, but it's probably best to treat them as rapid-fire opinions, and to take the star ratings with a grain of salt. Let's just say, if you're not a young adult male with a scholarly bent (even though there are plenty of those in the fandom), you may not find yourself agreeing with everything in the book.

Full-length articles are the other crowning jewel of the guide, providing in-depth information on various aspects of manga and the surrounding culture. Right before the main listings, readers can brush up on a general history of manga, with particular emphasis on how it reached America, along with a discussion of the artform's main characteristics. The remaining articles are scattered alphabetically throughout the encyclopedia section: the Big Four Demographics (shounen, shoujo, seinen, josei) show up, as well as major genres (fantasy, sci-fi, romance, comedy, even the oddball ones like salaryman) and other related topics (history of Japan, otaku subculture, tokusatsu, video games). Most of the articles follow a chronological format describing how that genre has developed in the past half-century of manga, followed by a listing of representative titles. It's a great way of getting the big picture, especially for fans who may have only come in recently and want to know how their favorite genres have evolved over the years.

For other readers, the back of the book may be the most valuable part: here's where you'll find the dedicated yaoi and adult sections. Both sections are prefaced with enlightening historical overviews, and the reviews adjust accordingly to the material—sexiness is as much of a determining factor as the fundamentals of story and art. Push on all the way to the appendices, and you'll also find what may be some of the most interesting material in the entire volume: controversial aspects of manga such as sex, violence, racism, and profanity are discussed at length, explaining the differences between Japanese and American cultural standards without trying to put either nation on a pedestal. Far less controversial, but still useful, is a brief (if oversimplified) primer on the Japanese language, and it's about then that everything you could possibly discuss about manga has been discussed, so it's off to the glossary, bibliography and index after that.

It's been many years since Frederick Schodt first introduced the idea of "manga" to an American audience—and has it really been 5 years since Tokyopop decided to unflip everything and shot the market into the stratosphere? With the dynamic worlds of manga now taking up entire bookstore aisles, it can be hard for readers to pick out what's good, and this book singlehandedly solves that problem. Heck, it ought to be parked on a podium in front of every manga aisle, the same way dictionaries are deployed in libraries for instant lookup. If you thought reading manga was addictive, just wait until you get hooked on reading about manga.

Grade:
Production Info:
Overall : A

+ Unbelievably comprehensive and informative, and arguably the best American book written about manga in years.
Reviews and ratings reflect a grown-up, academic mindset that doesn't necessarily suit all readers.

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