The Fall 2018 Manga Guide
Hiro Mashima's Playground
What's It About?Before Fairy Tail and Rave Master, mangaka Hiro Mashima was a small time manga artist, aspiring to be big.
Hiro Mashima's Playground is a compilation of eight short stories including his two first published pieces, Magician and Bad Boys Song, along with his prototype version of Fairy Tail. With commentary after each short story, fans of Mashima will get to learn a little bit about the mangaka, his thought process, and what it takes to become a professional manga artist.
Playground is a two part series published in one single volume through Kodansha Comics, and runs for $19.99 paperback. It can also be purchased digitally through Comixology and runs for 432 pages.
Is It Worth Reading?
Like many short story collections, Hiro Mashima's Playground is hit-or-miss depending on the quality of the individual story, but when it does impress, it's worth the price of the collection alone. Of the stories within, his two reprinted debuts—“Magician” and “Bad Boy's Song,” the latter Mashima's only contemporary non-fantastical story in the collection—are the weakest points, both art- and story-wise. His character designs in these early stories are a little more angular and clunky, his backgrounds incredibly limited and his reliance on screentone rather distracting. “Magician” throws way too much wackiness at the reader in a short number of pages—which is true for several of the stories in this collection—and “Bad Boy's Song” is the least funny of the entries.
Nonetheless, entries like “Cocona” are a highlight and the art improves significantly in the rest of the stories, even if Mashima's women are all shaped too similarly, curvy to a disproportionate degree. “Cocona” manages to tell an intriguing story in a short number of pages, complete with well-timed comedy and surprising twists—twists diminished by the later-in-the-volume “MP,” which was published earlier in magazines and shares some of the same plot points. “Plue's Adventures II” is an extremely art-limited choose-your-own-adventure manga that's hilarious and easily worth going through several times at minimum. “Fairy Tale,” not to be confused with Mashima's later franchise, seems like the pilot to a series with potential but is fairly flat in this short format. “Xmas Hearts” is almost too bizarre to follow, but the Japanese take on a “Santa Claus's once-a-year-excursion is a business” plot is an interesting one, considering how often it's been done in Western media. “Combo Squad Mixture” impressively shows character development in a short space, and it treads the line of wackiness and realism with finesse.
You don't have to be a fan of Mashima to enjoy this collection of short stories, though of course his longtime fans will be eager to read some of his earlier work, and there's also the insight into his creative process offered by his notes after each entry. Not every story sticks the landing, but those that do elicit plenty of laughter and even pathos by volume's end. Fans of comedic, fantastical manga should give this oversized volume a try.
Playground was my first exposure to Hiro Mashima beyond the vaguest idea of what Rave Master and Fairy Tail are. I understand that many of these stories are some of Mashima's earliest published work and might not be all that indicative of his current artistic ability. That said, I was mostly baffled by them.
Like most anthologies, Mashima's one-shots do vary some in quality. My favorite was actually a slice-of-life story about a group of truant punks who decide to play a rock show at graduation. It's certainly after-school-special in its theming and premise, but it has actual heart, which is really all I look for in my Shonen. The rest? I felt very strange reading them. They seem like practice stories scribbled in a notebook at a young age rather than fully formed professional products. A crucial plot-point in one involves bullet-holes in a buttock, and in another the main villain is partially beaten by ripping her top off. It would be one thing if these were just strange jokes, but this is the root of all the stories in Playground; a base obsession with things that feel like they were conceived during a childhood sugar high.
Also: I'd heard tell of how much Mashima's artistic stylings cribbed from Eiichiro Oda, but I had no idea it was this obvious. The problem is Mashima doesn't have the consistency of quality in Oda's drawings, or his use of simplified forms to heighten emotional impact. This even spirals down to the narrative level. Every single protagonist in this book is basically Luffy, down to their idiocy and ability to rally people behind them with sheer drive. In a Christmas-themed story, the main character even has an obsession with eating. Shonen Action is one of manga's more derivative genres, but this skirts dangerously close to plagiarism in a way that makes me raise an eyebrow, especially given Mashima's level of popularity.
I think part of Mashima's appeal is his childishness. In his author notes, he actually seems quite endearing; extremely passionate about his work and coming up with concepts for new series left and right. And to an extent that passion shows in the work itself: Mashima is just telling the stories he wants to tell. But, at least in Playground, they lack any other substance beyond a basic fascination with fantasy trappings and dumb jokes. If you're a Mashima superfan, maybe check this one out. Otherwise, I can't recommend it.
What stands out the most in this omnibus of Hiro Mashima's two-volume Mashima-en short story collection is how long he was thinking about Fairy Tail before he ever started it. Most of these eight stories date to when he was serializing Rave Master, but so many of them have wizards, magic guilds, dragons, and other staples of his second major series that it feels as if he was working up to it for years. A couple of pieces, like “MP” and “Fairy Tale” are almost direct prototypes. That's a major part of the appeal of this book, which, while good, is also a comedown if you've been reading Mashima's more polished later works.
Of the stories, “Cocona” is among the strongest. Following a devil princess' Little Mermaid-style quest for humanity, the story is fun and a little romantic, with slightly more polished art than a few of the other pieces. Not only does Mashima skewer the “transform for love” trope spawned by Hans Christian Andersen's literary fairy tale, but he manages to add in a good dose of humor as well, along with a heroine who may need a little help getting things off the ground but can ultimately take care of herself. (Even if she has awful taste; even the bad guy agrees.) “Bad Boys Song,” the only real-world story, stands out as well, if only because of the commentary Mashima provides about his own school days. It isn't particularly polished, but it does make a nice point about how not everyone is going to fit in, no matter what the adults say.
Artistically, it's interesting to see how much Mashima's art has come into its own. Most of these stories look like they're Eiichiro Oda knockoffs in terms of the artwork, and comparing it with Edens Zero you can really see how Mashima's learned to draw muscles and more proportionate bodies. We can also see that he's been making that dumb joke about Plue being a dog since basically day one; “Magician,” one of the earliest stories collected here, introduces the gag, and it's present in many of the others as well. While this may not hold up for readers who aren't already fans of Mashima's work, it's a fun exploration for those who are. Seeing the story threads he'll later weave into more cohesive stories is neat, and that's really the main appeal of picking this book up.
An anthology of short stories written by mangaka Hiro Mashima, Playground is a collection of short stories published from 1998 to 2003. Ranging from stories about a group of high school delinquents becoming a band to a choose-your-own-adventure style comic about weird looking dog, Plue, Playground encapsulates Mashima's whimsy, spirit, and good humor in eight short stories.
Pages of author's notes, character design sketches, and personal reflections accompany each story from Mashima himself. A total insight on what was going on during that time in Mashima's life, along with what he thinks of the story now, I felt like I was really getting the inside story on Mashima's process.
I am, truthfully, not a fan of Mashima's stories. I only enjoyed two out of the eight (one being the musician high school delinquents and the other being a young devil falling in love with a human). After reading six stories in one sitting, I found myself bored because of how formulaic each short story was. However, this isn't my type of shounen to begin with. For fans, this book is great, and it shows how much Mashima has grown as an artist and writer. Mashima even says it himself, he's not the best but he's trying to get better, and I hope he did since 2003, when these stories were initially collected.
Overall, if you're into Hiro Mashima, Playground is worth the read. If you have no preference for him or you're not a fan of his works, Playground is not worth your time.
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