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House of 1000 Manga Finale: Part II

by Jason Thompson,

House of 1000 Manga: The End

If this column was a horror movie, like the one it's named after (I've actually never even seen it), this is the part when the House of 1000 Manga burns down and the traumatized survivors tell the sheriff about how they narrowly escaped being crushed under tons of manga next to their dead friends who, like them, foolishly followed the mysterious sign on the old dirt road saying “Manga Café Just Ahead.” Five years ago, at the invitation of the awesome people of Anime News Network, I started writing this column about some of my favorite manga. I wrote about tons of manga, both great and not-so-great, and tons of topics (such as censorship, Shonen Jump, the history of manga in the US, and so on). Together with my good friend Shaenon Garrity, we wrote reviews of over 200 manga (not really 1000 but, at 52 manga a year, that'd take 20 YEARS so it was always a long shot). But now, as Shaenon said, we're ending the column. It's over! Roll credits!

“How could you say you ran out of manga? There are so many great manga left to write about!” It's true, there are still tons of amazing manga—licensed ones even!—that we haven't covered in the column. I haven't written about some of my favorite manga, like One Piece and Vagabond and Shaman King. I haven't written about Galaxy Express 999 or Devilman or Excel Saga or Blade of the Immortal or Lupin III or Kaze Hikaru or a whole bunch of other incredible manga, both popular and obscure. I haven't written about Boy's Love the way I wrote about straight porn manga! Aggghhh, so many oversights!! So many weird, wonderful, obscure old things, and so many interesting new series I haven't covered.

But the truth is, we didn't run out of manga, I just needed to take a break and focus on other things. I've been privileged to work in the US manga industry (as much as it is an industry; really, it's just a handful of people) and write about manga for 15+ years, but I'm actually a slow writer and absorbing and writing about a whole manga series every week takes a lot of time. I'll still be writing features for Anime News Network, but I won't be going through my manga shelves (or performing the “hopefully-I-seem-like-a-parent adult man browsing the YA library manga stacks walk of shame”) to find something to write about every week anymore.

Wow…five years! It's like going through an entire Manga High School, plus an extra year because I was held back. From all those 200+ manga, here's a list of 10 favorites.

1. Iron Wok Jan
As Shaenon correctly predicted, Shinji Saijyo's Iron Wok Jan (licensed by ComicsOne but out of print) is one of my favorite manga. It embodies most of the things I love about shonen manga—the competitive spirit, the over-the-top melodrama, the heroic suffering and exaggerated violence. On the other hand, it's done with a wink; and unlike many soppy, sentimental shonen that go out of their way to show that the main character is the Greatest Hero Who Ever Lived, the main dude of Iron Wok Jan is a cutthroat, self-centered jerk whose only redeeming quality is that his cooking is incredible. But it's all good, because unlike othe shonen manga where you just resent the character because he's such a Gary Stu, here the author knows he's unlikeable.

The vicious, satirical tone of the series doesn't distract from the tasty cooking. Cooking manga works because so much of the appeal of food is visual, but even written descriptions of food can be appetizing, like in Gokudo Meshi, a manga whose whole plot is prisoners entertaining each other with stories of delicious meals they once had. In Jan you can almost smell the green onions, the fried rice, the grilled fish, the sauteed eggplant. The character art has a wickedly exaggerated edge, with wild expressions and tons of speedlines. There's also another form of exaggeration: every woman in the series has enormous breasts that look like headlights from those cars from the 1950s. But there's no nudity or sexual harrassment, and the female characters are actually really strong; it's just set in a world where women look like that, and if that's what it took to keep the artist interested in putting the pen on the paper, I can deal with that.

This manga also taught me to cook. Perhaps unfortunately, most of the recipes in the series are too over-the-top to teach anyone anything (I've rarely cooked ostrich meat, let alone had to worry about how to kill an ostrich humanely without frightening it with my intense bloodlust so it releases tons of fear pheromones and ruins the taste), but early on there's a scene where the creators basically say “Look, stupid, here's how you actually cook food” and draw a several-page sequence of one of the characters making green pepper beef. I was bored one night, so I followed the recipe in the manga, and now I cook almost every day. As much as I love other shonen manga, I've never read a martial arts manga and then said “Yeah! I better go do some pushups!”

2. The Four Immigrants Manga
A century ago, newspaper comic strips were so popular, they were the American equivalent of Japanese manga. As a kid in the library I read books like The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, reprinting newspaper strips from the classic 1920s-1950s period when newspapers and their comics were a big deal. Daily mass-market comic narratives printed in black and white, owned by a single creator but often drawn with an army of uncredited assistants…old newspaper comics were SOmanga. Or rather, they were like the lemur that could have evolved into the Homo Erectus of manga, if things had gone differently. If wartime paper shortages hadn't started shrinking newspaper strips. If American comic books hadn't been tarnished with the image of being bad for young people. If classic newspaper comic strips had been drawn with an eye for later book (graphic novel) republication instead of book versions being published inconsistently, if at all. If, if.

Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama's The Four Immigrants Manga comes from this period. Unearthed from dusty library archives by Frederik Schodt while he was writing his awesome book Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics, Kiyama drew the story as a comics pitch for San Francisco's Japanese-language newspaper but had to self-publish it in a limited-edition book in 1931 when no publishers were interested. It was ahead of its time: not a gag-a-day strip or an exotic adventure tale like most newspaper comics of the period, but a pseudo-autobiographical story of four Japanese immigrants who move to San Francisco, and their lives in the 1910s and 1920s. And yet, like then-contemporary hit comic Maggie and Jiggs, it is about immigrants chasing the American Dream, and it is an adventure set in an exotic location, the United States.

Read this comic however you want: as a tragicomic depiction of early-20th-century immigrant life (with everpresent racism, good and bad business ventures, arranged marriages, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake), as an early Asian-American narrative, as one of the first autobiographical graphic novels. Read it because it's a great work of art, and it's a shame Kiyama didn't find the audience and financial support that would have allowed him to draw more comics. One of the interesting features of The Four Immigrants Manga is that the Japanese characters speak fluent Japanese while the English dialogue is all awkward pidgin English. The Stone Bridge Press edition flips it by leaving the ‘English’ dialogue in its clunky original form while translating the fluent Japanese into fluent English text. At Viz, when people used to complain about content in manga, we used to quote from it: “Ha ha that's real Japanese style of kind, don't get mad!”

3. Jojo's Bizarre Adventure
If you had told me five years ago when I started House of 1000 Manga that in 2015 Jojo would not be an obscure manga that didn't sell any copies, but a popular anime/manga series that everyone made memes about, I would have been all “Awwww, you're nice, but seriously.” But miracles happen!

There's not much I can say about Jojo that hasn't already been said. I love the gimmick of naming characters after rock bands, especially back in the ‘80s when most manga character were named after food. (Nowadays, I'm like, please, anything other than Alice in Wonderland characters.) The way Hirohiko Araki's art evolves and improves, from cartoony and stiff (in his earliest work, Mashonen B.T.) to Fist of the North Star muscle-fetish, to his incredibly fluid and unqique mature style, should be inspiring to any artist. Lastly, his storytelling is amazing, and his conscious remixing of different heroic tropes—from Dracula to 1930s pulp adventure to murder mysteries to gangsters—makes each new story arc its own thing.

4. Maison Ikkoku
Maison Ikkoku, one of the first manga I ever read, is probably engraved in the neurons of my brain. For me, as a stereotypical teenage male nerd who only cared about science fiction and killing orcs, it was THE love story that opened me up to a whole new genre (Video Girl Aiand Ranma 1/2 are close seconds, but Ai is waaaaay more fanservicey and Ranma sorta doesn't go anywhere). I felt SO strongly for Godai, the inept, perpetually broke college student, and his hapless crush on his widowed landlady Kyoko. Though since you asked, I always kinda preferred Kozue, the girl he met working at the convenience store…

Later manga in the romantic comedy genre got bad: they made the protagonist so bitter or emo or inept or unlikeable you just wanted to just shoot him and put him out of his misery, or they loaded it with T&A, like bad breakfast cereal that's all sugar. But when it came out in 1980, Maison Ikkoku was also one of the first major seinen manga drawn by a woman artist, which perhaps is one reason why, although it's got nudity, it never degenerates into an endless string of pin-up shots. My sister, though not much of a manga fan, loved the Maison Ikkoku manga, though when she saw the same fanservice scenes reenacted in the anime, she thought it was too embarrassing and she went back to only reading it in print. This series is charming in many ways: the silly sitcom-ish complications; the shy warmth between the two romantic leads; the bildungsroman as Godai grows to manhood and gets a job and becomes a human. Looking back on Rumiko Takahashi's approximately 40-year career, it's probably her best manga, with the most satisfying ending and the least filler. After all, it's “just” 15 volumes, a mere 3000 pages. When you're in love, you never want it to end.

5. Antique Bakery
Fumi Yoshinaga hit the manga industry like a refreshing breeze, clearing away the screentone and bullshit. In a world of flash where artists just throw assistants at the page like disposable ground troops until it looks okay, her work is all substance, proving you don't really need much more than talking heads (admittedly, they are handsomely drawn heads, with wonderfully subtle facial expressions) if your characterization and writing are this good.

It's hard to pick a favorite Yoshinaga manga. Ôoku, her feudal-Japanese alternate history matriarchy, is great science fiction. What Did You Eat Yesterday? is foodie slice-of-life with a hundred little stories seen through the eyes of two middle-aged (but still handsome) gay men in contemporary Japan. Her various Boy's Love manga, twisted and less-twisted, have many delights and surprises. But Antique Bakery is like her announcement of “Here I am,” from its shocking opening scene which takes Boy's Love tropes and flings them out the window, to its wonderfully natural and unexpected character developments, its hilarious dialogue, and its still-rare (but 15 years ago even rarer) attempt to not just write yaoi fan wank, but to look honestly at gay issues in Japan. Discovering and reading this series made me so incredibly happy. I can't think of a better recommendation than that.

6. The Drifting Classroom
I'm not sure if The Drifting Classroom is really one of my favorite manga, but it's a stand-in for all of Kazuo Umezu's work, which collectively haunts my dreams. Umezu's comics, like many of the best manga (at least, the manga most popular among overseas fans), are strongly visual: almost flipbook-like sequences of images, weird and ghoulish, the kind of thing you show to a friend to get a reaction and freak them out. I started learning Japanese by taking a Japanese-English dictionary and an Umezu manga; the first Japanese word I ever read on my own was “Kyaaaaa!!”, the sound of a scream.

To a certain extent, wondering what is being said in an Umezu manga is more interesting than actually knowing. I think it was Viz designer Izumi Evers (or was it Ng Suat Tong, writing in The Comics Journal?)who said that Umezu's manga isn't meant to be read on an intellectual level; even his later stuff, published in seinen magazines because it was way too gory for kids, is basically childrens’ manga whose plot, character designs and fashion sense have a dated 1950s style. The dialogue in Fourteen, Umezu's unlicensed end-of-the-world sci-fi/horror manga, is frankly inane, but it's the images that stick with you: faces melting from air pollution, people mutating into monsters and eating each other, swarms of H.R. Giger-y aliens descending from the heavens to invade Earth's cities and assault the screaming mobs. The Left Hand of God, Right Hand of the Devil (whose evil-spirit story arc was almost certainly an influence on Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure) lingers on closeups of freakish fetus-monsters and rusty-scissors murders and little girls forced by sadistic madmen to eat cake until their stomachs explode.

Compared to these, his later ‘80s-90s works which approach the level of outsider art (he retired in the mid-90s), his 1972 manga The Drifting Classroom is a work of restraint and taste. Like Fourteen (to which it could almost be a prequel), it's about the destruction of the planet through pollution, and a small group of innocent, unspoiled children (well, they're unspoiled until they starve and start killing and eating each other) who must try to survive in a hostile world. There's mutant insects, and goofy baseball interludes, and interesting time travel logic, and period sexism and idealization of self-sacrificing motherhood. It's got a George R.R. Martin ruthlessness (sorta kinda) and a totally unique style, an artifact from a forgotten era of manga today mostly known through the stately museum-pieces of Shigeru Mizuki and Osamu Tezuka…but Umezu was there too, making his bizarre, commercially successful comics, too weird, too vulgar, too long to be sold as fancy hardbacks with dust jackets. Kazuo Umezu also embodies my image of what an artist should be like, which is to say, a lunatic who lives alone in a red and white striped house and acts like he never grew up and doesn't owe you an explanation.

7. The Legend of Koizumi
Legend of Koizumi is sort of like Hetalia: a super-politically-incorrect comedy series about nationality. But while Hetalia embodies the countries of WW2 Europe as sweet-natured innocent bishonen and pretty much just has them argue about food and act adorable (good thing they didn't make Civil War Hetalia, huh? But really, which is more offensive?), Koizumi embodies Japanese and foreign politicians as angry shonen manga characters and makes them fight intense sweat-and-blood geopolitical battles via mahjongg.

Most Japanese manga is so aggressively apolitical that Legend of Koizumi, with its undisguised caricatures of real-life politicians, tickled me pink. OTOH, like you'd expect from a manga about Team Japan kicking other countries’ asses through mahjongg, there is a jingoistic element here, a Team America/Poe's Law element where it's impossible to parody extreme nationalism this way without also being nationalistic. But it is fun seeing George H.W. Bush, Japanese politician Junichiro Koizumi and the pope team up to go toe to toe with the Space Nazis. It's fun realizing that the Dragon Ball Z line “It's over 9,000!” is as funny and parody-ripe to Japanese fans as it is to Americans. I don't know if I can recommend the later sequences, after they get back from playing mahjongg on the moon, but the first few volumes are great.

8. A Bride's Story
Shaenon already praised Kaoru Mori's Emma, a romance set in the exotic world of Victorian London; I am gonna double-dip and praise Mori's A Bride’s Story, a romance set in the exotic world of Central Asia around the same time. Mori's interest in historical accuracy grew stronger over the course of Emma: note the toy airplane in the early chapter when—GASP SHOCK!—airplanes weren't invented till years later, or the stereotypically comedic early scenes of the Indian prince going through London with his elephants and harem girls. By A Bride’s Story, both her art and her stories are finely crafted, like the fabrics she draws in such jaw-dropping detail.

That's not the only thing that's detailed: her animals, houses, tools, even the plants and rocks all look real, and the characters too, with just that drop of manga-ization to make everyone look more beautiful, to show their emotion more through their big eyes. Emma’s long wordless sequences of 19th century Victorian women washing laundry are of a kind with A Bride Story’s long wordless sequences of 19th century nomadic women making rabbit stew. This is immersion. But we're not just watching everything from a distance like floating ghosts, there's also a love story (actually, several love stories); the central love is between Amir, a self-sufficient huntress from a distant village, and Karluk, her much younger husband via an arranged marriage. In Emma the lovers were separated by social status; here they are separated by age, and their love is platonic at first, since Karluk is prepubescent when the story begins. Also, some of their relatives question their suitability for one another, leading to challenges and danger.

Later volumes focus on other couples, funny and tragic, sweet and sour. There's lots of ways to be in love, and lots of perspectives from which to look at this vanished world, this 19th-century Central Asian rural culture. This is what fiction is all about: a chance to imagine you are another person, in another time, in another place.

9. I Am a Hero
I love zombies, I love manga, so I was thrilled to discover a truly amazing zombie manga (sorry, Fort of the Apocalypse. You're not bad either.) Let me clarify that: a running zombies manga. My favorite. And while most Japanese zombie movies and manga tend to go for “intentionally trashy”—the campy, gory, X-rated Big Tits Zombie/Zombie Hunter Rika/Attack Girls Swim Team vs. Undead style—I Am a Hero takes the high road and plays it completely straight-faced.

It runs in Big Comic Spirits, a mainstream seinen magazine (“Every manga magazine needs a horror story,” Hyoe Narita, one of the Viz editors who'd worked in Japan, told me once). The art is fine-honed, with realistic, just slightly caricatural human characters (none of that Highschool of the Dead bakunyu nonsense) and immensely detailed photo-backgrounds, giving it a sense of place which makes the breakdown of society all the more intense. The plot builds slowly, starting with the mundane life of the main character, a very unheroic, mild-mannered manga artist's assistant who suffers from mental health issues, i.e. occasional hallucinations. Ah, but those strange rumors of people attacking and biting others, and those mutilated people walking around who should be dead, are those hallucinations or not? Well, whatever, the protagonist has to concentrate on his work, and spend more time with his girlfriend, and he can't let himself believe in such impossible things…it's almost 200 pages before the zombie attacks finally begin, and the slow burn really pays off.

Zombie stories tend to go off the rails when they go on too long, either turning into an endless boring melodrama between the human survivors, or mucking up the original premise by throwing in other elements until it's not a zombie manga anymore, it's a zombies/demons/mutants/aliens/robots manga. There's no guarantee this won't happen in I Am a Hero, but in the 15+ volumes that have been come out so far in Japan, it's still getting better and better, still escalating the stakes, still hasn't jumped the shark (OK, the “let's come out of hiding and make a perilous journey through the zombie-infested streets so we can get naked at a hot springs” sequence might be a little sharky). It has some of the best action horror sequences I've ever read in any manga, and it's drawn with incredible confidence and skill. Best of all, it's been licensed by Dark Horse for an April 2016 release, and it'll be published in 512-page omnibii, the perfect format for this slow-moving—but oh so good—series.

10. Kakukaku Shikajika
What an amazing artist Akiko Higashimura is. I still need to read Princess Jellyfish, her best-known series (thanks, anime adaptation!), but the proof of her awesomeness is in Kakukaku Shikajika, her autobiographical manga about becoming an artist. This is a wonderfully drawn, insightful series about high school and college and the difficulty of learning to draw and truly challenging yourself and becoming a professional. I'd say more but I wrote about it recently, so go check out my original review.

I can't believe Higashimura's work hasn't been licensed, which allows me to end this on a positive note: there are still so many good manga out there that haven't been licensed in English, I could read a new series every week and I'd never run out of manga. (And of course, it's also fun to review bad manga…) Like I said at the beginning, I'll still be reading manga, and I'll still be writing about it, just not so often. I'll still be here. I'll be on twitter, and drawing on my website, and I'll still be reviewing new manga in every issue of Otaku USA. And ANN! It was fun writing this column every week and talking to everyone who commented in the forums (I'm ptolemy18). Thanks for all your support and comments and suggestions of what to read, and thanks to Shaenon for your great reviews and helping me keep this thing going.

So after the credits for “House of 1000 Manga”…after the movie ends…there's a bonus scene. Out of the burnt remains of the house crawls an only slightly charred copy of +Anima, seeking new victims. Or the sheriff tells survivor #1 “We're almost done here, we just need you to sign this form” and when they give them the form the form is a manga and the movie ends with a closeup of them screaming!! Or survivor #2 gets in the car, passenger side, without looking, and sighs “At least it's finally over” and then the camera pans over to the driver's seat and in the driver’s seat is nothing but a pile of manga!!!


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