Best of 2009 – Manga

I read a lot of manga this year (2009), a lot a lot, over ten thousand chapters a lot. So it’s pretty hard to a) remember all of them and b) manage to narrow it down to ten. But as I love my fellow man so much I shall try and distill my opinion down so you can consume it like some kind of divine mana (or moneyshot).

Well after cutting the list down to ten I sort of killed my own interest in it. Which is unfortunate as now that I return to it I find myself rather hazy on the details of a lot of the entrants. Which may mean that I need to re-read some of them, which will in turn lead to further delays, oh the humanity!

Well the above paragraph was correct, I did indeed need to re-read some on them. Hence the delay, still the majority of the manga below are ongoing so the delay just means you’ll have more to read when you follow my suggestions…you do follow all my suggestions..right?

Well now this is almost seven months late, dear lord, still these are all well worth reading, so Tonto, jump on it.

 

Mail

Mail

Mail is actually pretty short. Though while I’d love to see more of it it is entirely complete in itself and certainly isn’t a point against it. It’s also pretty freaky, the first time I read it I foolishly did so at the dark and creepy early am of the morning clock. As such I was left with no recourse but to bring a large screwdriver with me when I had to creep down my creaky landing to make pee pee.

Which when you get down to it is what your looking for from horror media. The frisson creates by your brush with the terrifying and the perverse. On that front Mail most certainly delivers. I also really enjoyed the frame of the story. The brief and sketchy view of the world and it’s cosmology that the reader picks up is extremely intriguing. And on a less wanky note, pretty cool.

The main protagonist is reminiscent in terms of both character and action of the classic noir PI’s. Which is certainly a strong point in it’s favour as I love the mythos associated with such men.

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor.”

Mail perfectly blends this noir protagonist with a nice mix of action and horror that makes Mail an enjoyable, tense and engaging read. I also believe that the official English translation is only three volumes long so it’s not a big investment of either time or money.

 

Konjiki no Gash Bell

Like several other manga on this list my first exposure to KGB (ha) was via the anime. I’d been vaguely aware that it existed but hadn’t really been attracted to what I’d seen in passing. But I was in something of a fansub drought and there were a decent amount of episodes translated I decided to give it a go. Two days and sixty or seventy so episodes later I was both elated and dejected by that decision. Elated because KGB had been massively entertaining and dejected because I was now forced to wait week to week for the next seventy or so episodes. Which is something I find myself incapable of doing. So I tryed to put it out of my mind. I looked to the manga for temporary surcease but it was both extremely long and, most annoyingly, stalled. I did discover that the anime diverged hugely from the manga towards the end which was a little annoying. Though moot at that point. But as time passed I did succeed in putting it out of my head.

Until in the closing months of last year, a couple of years since I’d watched the anime, I came across the manga. It’s hard enough to resist a long fully translated manga at the best of times (that’s my excuse for reading Skip Beat), practically impossible when it’s a property you already enjoy.

The manga is excellent, while there are certain elements that worked better in the anime (the musical numbers in particular) I preferred the manga overall. The manga was grimmer and bloodier than the anime adaptation which really suited the almost deconstructionist approach the series takes to the “pet monster” genre. Which brings me to one of the biggest selling points of the series, it takes a standard fnatatic element common to children’s anime and presents it with enough verisimilitude and “realism” to make it feel real.

The story is extremely well written and the characters very well constructed, I have seldom had such visceral responses to entertainment media as I had while reading KGB. While shonen action stories tend to focus on certain (somewhat twee) virtues they often fail to draw the (more mature) reader in. Adult cynicism interacting poorly with optimistic suspension of disbelief. I didn’t find this to be the case with KGB. The emotions and virtues espoused by the characters felt like a logical result of the situations presented by the author. So it “felt ok” to buy into them.

While I did mention it above it’s worth mentioning again how funny KGB is. Even when reading humourous material it’s rare enough that I’ll laugh out loud. But KGB frequently had me roaring with laughter.

 

Zettai Karen Children

Its hard to pick out one particular element of ZKC (Zettai Karen Children) as “the best”. In terms of feel it’s very reminiscent of stuff like Astro City, neo-silver age material that presents and refines the quintessential elements of what made comics great. To a certain extent ZKC (Zettai Karen Children) does the same thing for manga. There’s a certain purity or simplicity to the story-telling that makes this a joy to read.

While manga simply means comics and has as much genre definition as the word film for a lot of casual western audiences manga is a genre, one genrally conflated with the actual shonen genre. So even though I know better there’s still an almost instinctive assumption of shonen genre trappings when I think of “manga”. As such when I think of ZKC in many ways it encapsulated what attracted me to manga in the first place – good action, cool characters, (very well done) humour, pathos, morally complex antagonists and protagonists, racy “ecchiness”, etc. While it’s not a totally standard shonen manga it perversely serves as an excellent example of what can be great about the genre.

Also looking back at it now I realise how fresh the whole Esper thing was. Which is odd considering how ubiquitous psionics are in pulp sci-fi. It then dawned on me that most of the psionics I’d come across had been actively trying to distance themselves from “vanilla” psionics; only I’d never actually been exposed to what they were trying to distance themselves from. Even leaving that aside I don’t recall encountering too much material where psionics/espers were the focus of the action and if I did it clearly wasn’t good enough to leave a lasting impression. So yeah, apart from the spectacle/coolness of the powers themselves (also an enjoyable aspect of this type of story) there was the novelty of the power source itself.

It’s difficult to think of more to say than that, because ultimately my recommendation is based on the fact that ZKC is an enjoyable and entertaining story told in an enjoyable and entertaining way.

 

Fullmetal Alchemist

FMA - The DoorFMA Two Brothers

My first introduction to the world of Fullmetal Alchemist was via the first anime adaptation. Which had possibly the most irritating ending ever (still haven’t seen Conqueror of Shamballa, maybe it redeems it). Still apart from that it was extremely enjoyable, good action, decent plot, excellent bad guys and (for the time) animation. Also the power system was cool (if rather loosely defined and only tangentially related to “real” alchemy) and the setup of the world was interesting (and again loosely defined outside the empire). So I enjoyed Full Metal Alchemist, though it certainly wouldn’t be among my “top tier” of shows.

I was interested in finding out the “real” way the story went. But at that point the English translations/scanlations hadn’t even reached the “divergence point” so I put it on the long finger and then completely forgot about it. But then when I saw the scanlation for chapter one hundred pop up on Mangaupdates.com I figured that was a sufficient amount of new material to dive into the manga.

And I’m so glad I did, it’s something of a cliche that the book/comic/manga is better than the movie/anime and to be honest it’s generally true, and in this instance it’s specifically true. The manga has all the things that I enjoyed in the anime and more besides. The story is superior, the characters deeper and more real, the emotional impact stronger, it looks better and ,most surprising of all, the action scenes are more exciting.

Generally where anime really wins over manga is in the action stakes as animated action is often more exciting than the thrill still images can elicit. However the action scenes in the FMA manga (especially the later chapters) are among some of the best I’ve ever seen. They perfectly use the medium to draw the reader in and elicit the maximum response.

The only slight trepidation I have is that I finished reading it at chapter 101 and the story finished at chapter 108. While Ive no reason to doubt that the quality of the first hundred chapters but there is a certain worry that the end of it will go tits up. Still, the first hundred chapters would make it more than worthwhile.

 

Muhyo to Rouji no Mahoritsu Soudan Jumusou

The characters in this are pretty unique and are packed with verisimilitude . The artwork is excellent (though quite stylised) and the story (which starts out episodic and then builds up to big story arcs) is well constructed, plotted and delivered. But the real appeal of this manga is the world itself. While it shares elements with other “urban fantasy”/supernatural action modern day settings it combines them in a unique way which I find extremely addictive.

While the initial setup of the magical world is laid out in the first issue or two the full details dont emerge until later and I genuinely look forward to discovering more details about the world and the manner in which executors interact with hell. Which brings me to another thing that I really like about the series. In a lot of action manga a character may have a variety of special attacks, which generally act a lot like a hammer to whatever nails the plot pushes up. But no matter how cool an attack is in time it tends to dull (which is usually when they “power up”). However each sentence (basically special demonic summons executors use to punish rogue spirits) is unique so you very rarely see the same thing twice. Which means that each sentence is another thing to look forward to as they are always extremely cool/unique.

 

Bloody Monday

In general I wouldnt describe myself as a fan of thrillers. Well not since the heady hormone filled days of my adolescence when I consumed with a passion the works of Robert Ludlum, John Land, David Morell, Tom Clancy, etc. I also havent fished since then. Though I doubt the two are related. Anyhow, thrillers are not my normal fare and so it was with no great enthusiasm that I approached Bloody Monday. The very mixed reviews it received didnt help much. But as I was in the throes of a manga reading binge the appeal of a relatively lengthy and complete series proved too much to resist. I am so very glad I fell to temptation.

While there are certain elements of this that demand willing suspension of disbelief (primarily the main characters computing skills) its really nothing more than any action tv show (e.g. Burn Notice, Human Target, 24, etc.). Once you get past that youre rewarded with an engaging action thriller that is packed with interesting characters, actions and plot twsits. In particular I though the plot was handled quite well, without falling into the, frankly masturbatory, convolutedness of stuff like Death Note (lordy was that over-rated).

Actually looking back on this now I really liked some of the characters more than I thought at the time. The antagonists in particular were excellently written, even now I still find some of them pissing me off. The artwork is good, not really excellent but certainly a cut above average. Best of all the story is complete, no waiting for weeks for the next chapter to be translated. While there is a Bloody Monday:Second Season the first season wraps up all the major plot points completely.

 

Beelzebub

Beelzebub is probably my perennial favourite of 2009. Since its started there hasn’t been a single dud issue. At the end of each issue I am left depressed that there is no more and yet exultant in the knowledge that there will be. The fact that the series has a habit of ending each issue on something of a cliffhanger certainly doesn’t help. While the art is excellent and the story both engaging, amusing and packed with the action typical of a shonen title it’s the characters that really make this such an enjoyable read.

Though all the characters from allies to enemies are distinct and appealing;the main character in particular is an endlessly entertaining mixture of thug, idiot, hero and comedian. The plot also rockets along at a fair clip, which makes it an enjoyable change from the “ten issue fight” problems of some of the more staid or traditional shonen properties. As mentioned above the art is excellent, while its good from the beginning in the later issues it gets even better. It is one of the nicest looking of the manga on this list, or that Im reading generally.

To be honest its hard to come up with more to say without giving away any of the plot developments. In summary I’d recommend this to any fan of enjoyable action or comedy.

 

Until Death Do Us Part (Shi ga futari wo wakatsu made)

I could go on at length trying to string together some kind of semi objective reasoning as to why I like this manga (and why you should read it). But at the end of the day the main reason is because its cool. I mean come on, its about a super skilled blind swordsman who serves as a trouble shooter for a secret vigilante organisation. What more do you need to know?

Should I mention that he himself is a criminal with a shadowy past? Or that through the initial events in the story he’s become the guardian for a young girl with un-natural pre-cognitive abilities? Or that it looks absolutely fucking awesome? Or that its one of the best modern day action stories Ive read? Should I mention again that he’s an uber swordsman with a monomolecularly edged katana and sunglasses that allow him to “see” through sonar imaging?

Should I talk about how the story is both an action heavy popcorn extravaganza while simultaneously being an enjoyable study of how the main characters interact with each other? How nationally backed crime syndicates and world class assassins try to hunt down the girl the main character is protecting? How the girl has predicted they will get married? Should I mention the part where he cuts off some guys gums?

Suffice to say that you would be much better served by going out and reading this and realising how sweet it is rather than wasting your time and mine by having me write and you read any more about how great I think it is.

 

The World God Only Knows (Kami no Mizo Shiru Sekai)

The World God Only Knows (TWGOK) is appealing on a variety of levels. At its most obvious, it appeals as a well written romantic comedy, with an emphasis on the comedic aspects. While the romance is certainly present it generally takes a back seat to the comedy, which covers a nice broad spectrum from parody to slapstick.

TWGOK is also notable in being almost entirely upbeat and optimistic. Its always a light, fun read that seldom delves too deeply into the emotional depths and is basically entirely devoid of angst. Thats not to say that its incapable of conveying emotional depth, some of the more introspective pieces are quite heavy on the pathos.

However, plain romantic comedy, no matter how well executed, would have to work extremely hard to make it into any top ten list I may compile. Luckily enough for TWGOK though well executed romantic comedy is not its only virtue. The basic setup of the world and the frame for the story are quite clever and are something I find personally appealing. While there are other manga series out there that are heavy on otaku satire the writing in TWGOK is quite sharp without feeling either repetitive or condescending (though the translations are a little ropey until around Flag 8 or 9). Added to that is the main character, who is personally the main draw of the manga for me.

Katsuragi Keima is such a well and fully realised character that his appeal seems almost too obvious to discuss. While he is clearly drawn from certain stereotypes he is written in such a way that his character transcends the stereotype and feels somewhat “real”. Its also nice to see an otaku character that is neither a creepy pervert nor transparent wish fulfillment. The character strikes a nice balance between the two that allows him to be both a believable protagonist while also serving as the key comedic driver.

 

Majin Tantei Nougami Neuro

Neuro makes it to the top ten list for the second year in a row. Though as its now finished it shall sadly not be seen again. Because I (as all my readers know) am a lazy bastard, I shall be restating (and expanding upon) my thoughts from last year.

My first exposure to the world of “Demon Detective Brain Eater Neuro” was via the anime series that is based on this manga. It turns out that about half way through the anime diverges pretty widely from the manga, which is understandable as the anime needs an ending and the manga is still ongoing. As such there are several pretty large differences between the anime and manga – most of them revolving around the death of Yako’s father and the nature of X. I have to say that I really enjoyed the anime; the anime version of the story was a really enjoyable alternate to the manga.

So anyway after thoroughly enjoying my viewing of the anime I needed more, not necessarily more of it in particular but more fictional mysteries. It’s a genre I really enjoy. But unfortunately, much like cooking based anime and manga, its one that’s not in huge supply. It reminds me a lot of literature such as Doyle’s Holmes or Van Gulik’s Judge Dee. Anyhow after sating my anime needs with material such as Shion no Oh, Tantei Gakuen Q, etc. I eventually got around to reading the manga.

While the first issue or two are a bit of a chore due to poor scanlation (find the Ecchi Trooper versions, they’re much better) once it starts going its really enjoyable. While there are a good few differences, and a good bit of additional detail, the manga doesn’t really diverge from the anime until after the HAL story arc. However the manga is well worth a read, it contains the same mix of humour, violence and “puzzle-solving” as the anime series and expands on it with additional details on all the characters and the world. Obviously it also continues the story and who can resist new material?

The answer, as its entry in this list shows, is clearly, “Not Michael”. And Im so very glad that my resistance was so weak. While the earlier story arcs dealt primarily with “normal” mysteries as the series progresses the mysteries and their perpetrators grow more and more extreme. Until in the final arc we see Neuro being confronted by antagonists who pose an actual threat to him. While I certainly enjoyed the more complex mysteries, and towards the end the pure spectacle of the conflict, its the characters and their interactions that were the real appeal for me.

As actual mysteries gave way to open conflict the thing that kept me interested was the development of the relationships between the main characters. While the majority of the characters were too fantastic to be objectively real their interactions were written and presented with enough verisimilitude to create sufficient suspension of disbelief. Neuro himself has certainly earned himself a place in my favourite characters of all times list. While his existence, abilities and appearance are all in themselves cool it is his personality that seals the deal. Im also quite fond of Yako and the relationship between the two always makes for an enjoyable read.

 

Honourable Mention: Nana to Kaoru

Nana to Kaoru is an oddly “real” and touching love story about a teenage BDSM enthusiast and the girl he loves. It’s touching, arousing and amusing in equal measure. It is explicit at times, but never feels smutty. More erotica than pornography. Have to say that I find Kinbaku aesthetically interesting, though nearly entirely unarousing. Wouldn’t mind giving it a go.

Listening to: The National – Karen

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