Best of 2011 – Manga

It’s currently September 29th, if past years are anything to go by that means that I should get this posted sometime mid-2012, possibly in June as an early birthday present to myself. Then again starting three months early may actually mean that this is one of my rare yearly round-ups that make it out at an appropriate time. Despite the tragic intervention of an MSc into my life of lazy media consumption I have already read what could fairly be described as too much this year. So much in fact that I’m rather apprehensive of adding up exactly how much. Went and added them up, 16543 chapters read since January. Not counting that a large number are monthly releases (i.e. generally twice as long) lets assume a weekly chapter size of 20 pages, that’s 330,860 pages. Around 135 individual titles. Seems a bit excessive if I do say so myself. On the other hand though its been an awesome year, lots of long-running series finally finished scanlation and I got around to reading a large number of the “classics” that I had avoided or missed (including the “Big Three” – Bleach, Naruto and One Piece). This means that paring this list down to ten was an even bigger pain in the arse than it usually is.

So much of a pain in the arse that I think I’m going to “cheat” a little. I don’t think I could honestly pare this thing down to just ten entries, I suppose I could split it into “Ongoing” and “Complete”. But that seems like a bit of a pain in the hole. So instead I’m going to link to my Best of 2008,Best of 2009 – Manga and Best of 2010 – Manga articles and strongly recommend that you check out any series listed there that is still ongoing. For those too lazy to click that would mean – Berserk, Hajime no Ippo, Ao no Futusmashi, Nurarihyon no Mago, Kekkaishi, Gamaran, Yotsubato!, Hajimete no Aku, Zettai Karen Children, Beelzebub, Until Death Do Us Part (Shi ga futari wo wakatsu made),The World God Only Knows (Kami no Mizo Shiru Sekai), Mahou Sensei Negima!, Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, King of Hell, Zetman and last, but certainly not least as I love it almost unnaturally, History’s Strongest Disciple Kenichi (Shijou Saikyou no Deshi Kenichi). All of these series are as good now as it was when I recommended it originally, in fact I believe I’ve re-read/caught up with every single one of these series this year as well (in some cases twice or more). You can see now what I mean about the difficulty of paring this down to ten choices, there alone, based solely on still ongoing series, are fifteen candidates. But that’s cleared the field a little so on to those who made the cut.

Ugh, even my preliminary list pruning has left me with around forty eight titles out of about one hundred and thirty. Well I still have about two weeks till the end of the year so hopefully I’ll manage to get it in shape by then.

I was looking at the list of everything I read this year and trying to divine some meaning from the whole. But much like life there is no real meaning to be seen. No particular trends, as I read so much that small trends tend to get evened out, and my reading pattern is chaotic at best. I did get really into sports manga during the summer, a genre and sphere of human activity I am generally less than interested in. The majority of sports stuff I read was enjoyable but I generally found the more peculiar, cerebral or outré treatments of the sports to be more appealing than the rather prosaic “classics” e.g. I greatly prefer One Outs or Last Innings treatment of baseball to H2’s. Actually while writing this I realise that I’ve been reading sports comics since I was a kid, from the Eagle to The Rover and The Victor, from Alf Tupper (The Tough of the Track) to William Wilson (Wilson the Wonder Athlete). Much like now as a kid I also preferred the atypical sports stories. I wish someone would scan in older british comics like the Rover or the Wizard (or Action, I could go for some Hook Jaw or The Steel Claw). Anyhow, as I was saying, no particular patterns emerge.

Well somewhat unsurprisingly we are now drawing the first week of 2012 to a close and I’m still not done. At least I have the list down to ten which is something.

Finally got this done with one day left to go in January.

Ha, apparently not.

One last note. All of the series here are available for free online if you want to try them out. You can download them via torrent’s or private DDL or you can check them out on an online reader like Mangafox. In terms of quality I would suggest the former route, though online readers will let you get a feel for them. Ultimately though I would urge you to pick the manga up in paper form if its available in your area in order to support the author (though check out reviews first to insure the translation isnt terrible). This is also one of those rare situations where I practice what I preach.

20th Century Boys / 21st Century Boys

(Volumes 22 / Chapters 249 | Volumes 2 Chapters 16 – Completed)

While I don’t number the entries in these posts if you are only going to read one of the titles listed here than make it this.

Sometimes I find writing down my thoughts on stuff I’ve read/watched/played/stroked while it was asleep difficult because all I really want to say is “This is awesome”. But because I’m taking the trouble to write it down in pseudo-review format I feel the need to throw out more than three words. I suppose there is an element of laziness to it, analysing exactly why you liked something is difficult (and often impossible) and can lead to tearing the thing apart too far. It’s been a few months since I read this but the feeling of “That was amazing” still lingers strongly. I could point out specific elements that made this great, the intricate story, the excellent pacing, the fabulous artwork, the lifelike characters. Ah, now there’s something that might be worth examining.

I think it’s how real this story feels that makes it so great. The reality isnt so much in the events that occur but in the people who experience them. The best works of fiction (in my opinion obviously) take the impossible or unlikely and make it real. They present us with people that feel like real people experiencing things that could never happen. But more importantly they show us things about people and by extension ourselves that we don’t always think about or experience. I don’t want to say that they teach us lessons, because a) its twee and b) generally untrue. But I think theres value in examining life from the alternate perspective. Hmm that was rather confused, to boil off the bullshit and sum it up, the most interesting stories are human stories and thats what 20th Century Boys ultimately is.

Its a story about childhood, about growing up, about your dreams for the future and how life works out, how life lets you down, how you stand back up, its about rock and roll, and robots and the end of world. It’s an amazing read and I would be genuinely surprised if anyone read this and didnt find it worth their while.

21st Century Boys is a two volume finale of 20th Century Boys. All of the volumes for both are available from Viz, though I havent checked out those versions the scanlation is uniformly excellent.

The Breaker

(Volumes 10 Chapters 72 – Completed)

This is probably the best martial arts manga (or in this case manhwa) that I’ve read. No, wait, that’s still History’s Strongest Disciple Kenichi, actually, while Kenichi is probably still my favourite this is probably “better”. Ok, The Breaker is the best wuxia manga I’ve read. Weirdly enough “proper” wuxia is a very rare genre when it comes to manga, its much better represented in manhwa. Unfortunately due to the comic market in Korea going through the floor a large number of Korean series have gotten axed or havent been translated/scanlated. Even if they were I think it would be hard to beat The Breaker. It wonderfully modernises the wuxia genre without losing any of the key elements that make the genre what it is. As well as being a technically excellent genre piece it’s also well plotted (actually the pacing in particular is top notch) packed with distinct and interesting characters. All of whom feel fairly three dimensional and show a believable amount of character growth.

Of course when it comes to wuxia fiction the action is important and The Breaker delivers that in spades. The fights are very well drawn and the energy in them really leaps off the page. What I found particularly enjoyable is that each of the characters unique style of martial arts actually feels distinct. This may seem self evident but to be honest in action comics/manga/etc. far too often everybody seems to fight in exactly the same way, whether they’ve been bitten by a radioactive spider or the last Saiyan. However in The Breaker when you see a fight between someone using, say, Iron Fist and The Nine Arts Dragon its clear that each of them fight entirely differently. As mentioned above the action scenes are replete with energy and the setting’s for the fights are usually equally exciting.

Perhaps most importantly of all, especially for action fiction, The Breaker is packed full of what I call “Fuck Yeah!” moments (see my various rantings around the site) and what Tv Tropes probably calls crowning moments of awesome. To be honest if you’re creating action fiction and there arent bits of it where I’m grinning inanely and thinking “fuck yeah!” to myself, then you are doing it wrong.

One Piece

(Volumes 64 Chapters 651 – Ongoing)

This year I read all of the “Big Three” (Naruto, Bleach and One Piece) and, much like it was with the anime, One Piece emerged on top. Now I have to say it was much closer in the manga than it was with the anime. The Naruto and Bleach anime are plagued by obvious “filler”. The additional stuff in Bleach is of much higher quality than the stuff in Naruto but its still just as blatant. On the other hand I’ve never managed to notice the filler in the One Piece anime. However when it comes to the manga the pacing of Bleach is so much better than the anime and pushes it up to just below One Piece in my affections. The Naruto manga is a bit better than the anime but to be honest I’m having real trouble getting back into Naruto since I accidentally spoilerd myself on it years ago (specifically the death of my favourite character).

The best thing about One Piece for me is the boundless feeling of wonder, it really captures the idea of “Adventure”, of exploring strange new lands and seeing just what kind of weird shit is out there. It captures the same excitement and energy that made me love the Sinbad stories, or the fantasy genre in general. While it, by necessity, puts the JUMP values front and centre they work much better in this setting than in a number of other ones. The romanticised pirate life already includes strong themes of loyalty, camaraderie, co-operation, etc.

The artwork certainly has its own unique style which takes a bit of getting used to, but while it initially appears simplistic the detail in the more intricate panels is impressive. As a shonen action series One Piece is not light on the action, all of which is drawn excellently and “choreographed” very well. Most named combatants have their own unique powers and fighting style, most of which are quite original or at least provide a new spin on “traditional” power sets.

The plot and pacing are quite well done, each story arc is relatively self contained while at the same time contributing to the overall narrative and simultaneously filling us in on the world the characters are travelling in. The entire story is obviously framed by the voyage of the Straw Hat pirates. While the story generally varies between comedy and action it does manage some moments of real pathos, possibly because they are a well handled departure from the norm.

I suppose I should take a moment to address the pirate issue. Much as I hate the phrase, “I liked them before they were cool”. Actually thats not true, pirates, both fictional and otherwise, have always been cool. Need we look further than Captain Blood or The Crimson Pirate? I should more correctly say that I was into pirates before the internet’s love affair with them. As such the pirate focus of One Piece is quite appealing.

Actually one last note, the world of One Piece is great, it’s original, unique and intriguing. Quite often I enjoy reading the manga simply to see what more we can learn about the world itself. While it will never happen, and probably isn’t needed, I’d love to see some licensed RPG’s or encyclopaedias detailing the world. If I ever get people interested in a pirate game I’d set it in this world in a heartbeat.

Liar Game


(Volumes 13 Chapters 144 – Ongoing)

Lot’s of anime, manga, films, whatever out there bill themselves as psychological whatever. Though more often than not this just seems to be an excuse to indulge in amazingly unlikely and convoluted plots that stretch the audience’s credulity to the breaking point. That isn’t really the case with Liar Game, once you buy into its big lie (mysterious organisation fucking with people) everything else that happens feels believable.

People’s response to the odd situations they are placed in feels “real” and the manner in which the protagonist’s and antagonists manipulate and take advantage of other characters seems all too plausible. It never really falls into the common trap these kind of stories usually do – an over reliance on the so called Xanatos gambit.

This strong feeling of verisimilitude makes the series only more enjoying, the key appeal of stories like this is in seeing the odd situations the characters get into and the psychological tricks and manoeuvring they use to “solve” these problems. The more real it feels the more impressive the characters action seem (because if we fully accept a situation as fictional then the parameters of what a character can do are broader).

This series also sticks firmly to its guns, there is basically no physical conflict, the stories conflicts are primarily mental and the characters lose or triumph based on their intelligence, cunning and occasionally empathy. The stories larger plot also has some interesting observations to make on the nature of trust, truth and personal relationships.

Unsurprisingly a work such as this is carried by the plot, which is excellent, and the characters, which are likewise. Generally I find characters who cry a lot, even if it’s understandable, to be incredibly grating (much like I find crying in real life). However it never felt out of place in the early parts of the story (the character shows nice organic growth as the story develops). The characters, even the bit parts, are all well realised and feel three dimensional rather that ciphers to drive the plot forwards.

It’s impossible to go into more depth without spoiling the story. But if you are interested I suggest reading even the first issue or two as they serve as an excellent introduction to what the series will be about.

Tsukihime

(Volumes 10 Chapters 73 – Completed)

If I were being a bit more objective I suppose this wouldn’t really have made the cut. But I’m somewhat addicted to this universe so from a personal perspective its inclusion makes sense. Actually, thats probably not fair. The “Nasuverse” is a pretty interesting setting with a lot of unique idea’s. It’s largely the creation of the Japanese author Nasu Kinoko and the games company he founded TYPE-MOON. It represents the setting shared by a number of Nasu’s visual novels and TYPE-MOON’s games as well as their anime and manga offshoots (specifically it includes Tsukihime, Fate/Stay Night, Kagetsu Tohya, Melty Blood, Fate/Stay Zero, Fate/Hollow Atraxia, Garden of Sinners as well as artbooks and character material). The story’s are generally set in the modern day and have heavy supernatural elements. The violence is usually extreme and quite graphic (though not to the point of sensationalism). The visual novels on the PC at least have eroge elements, sometimes its handled well (in Tsukihime) sometimes not so well (Fate/Stay Night). Generally I’d be happier without the sex bits as the seldom add anything to the story.

It’s really the supernatural elements and the setup of the supernatural world that form the series key appeal for me. The protagonist of Tsukihime, Shiki Tohno, is just a great main character and has one of the coolest special abilities I’ve ever come across. He’s much better realised in the manga than in the visual novel, where he can feel like a bit of a cipher. It’s hard to talk about the story or the setup of the world without giving away too many big spoilers. The plot moves along quite rapidly and secrets are uncovered thick and fast.

The action is excellent, while the manga is very well drawn overall, the action sequences in particular are very well drawn. As mentioned above Shiki’s special power is pretty awesome and makes for some great action sequences, actually nearly all of the combatants have visually stunning powersets, which is a good thing as there’s a lot of combat.

If you are looking for a decent supernatural action set in a world with some very appealing setting twists (the vampires in particular are pretty cool, probably my favourite vampiric set up actually, which is saying something considering how many of them I’ve come across) you could do much worse than give this a read. I’m torn on whether to suggest you try out the visual novel first or not. There’s a very well done free fan translation of it available and I’d suggest you give it at least one playthrough before reading the manga. The manga sort of synthesises all of the novels “routes” into a nice cohesive whole so even if you don’t give the visual novel a go you probably arent missing much. I wasnt particularly impressed with the anime adaptation thought so I would certainly recommend you check out the manga version before it.

Onani Master Kurosawa (Masturbation Master Kurosawa)

(Volumes 4 Chapters 22 – Completed)

I saw mention of this a while ago, it garnered some attention on release, due to the name one has to imagine. I saw it described as a spoof of Death Note involving masturbation, which dulled my interest to be honest. So it lingered on my hard drive for a while until on a whim I decided to give it a shot (no pun intended). Once I got into it I realised how wrong the above comparison was. At an amazingly shallow level it is similar to Death Note, but the two really bare next to no resemblance to one another.

Ultimately OMK is a story about adolescence and love. Possibly weighted a little more towards the latter than the former. A lot of people talk about stuff “feeling real” generally they confuse verisimilitude with realism, the former is important because it allows the story to resonate with the readers own life experiences. The latter is less useful and generally interferes with a decent story. From a personal perspective OMK has verisimilitude (I fucking hate spelling that word) in spades. Not that I used my ejaculate as a weapon of justice (considering I went to an all boys school it would have been even creepier and I also don’t think my socks were particularly evil), rather that I think it captures well the weird feelings and elation of adolescent love (which most “adults” still seem obsessed with, either by seeking it out, mirroring its patterns or going out of their way to ignore it).

The characters and situations start of a bit extreme but over the course of the story nothing they do feels “wrong” in a way that breaks the readers suspension of dis-belief. I actually found the main character particularly interesting and, as I mentioned above, his emotional state was both written and communicated well. If you read manga primarily for “awesome artwork” then you may be a little disappointed on the graphics front as its hard to say whether OMK is sparse and stylised or a bit amateurish. I don’t think the art style hurts the story and actually the rough sketchy style is often well suited to the material being covered.

The story itself plots a lot into its relatively short length. But it is paced and plotted well and the conclusion is satisfying. If you’re looking for something a little different you could do worse than spend an hour or two reading this (after all you’re reading this post so your time cant be that precious).

Skip Beat

(Volumes 29 Chapters 180 – Ongoing)

Skip Beat is nominally from a genre which, as I mention below, I generally have little time for and gain little enjoyment from. But much like Perfect Girl Evolution below Skip Beat manages to transcend it’s genre giving it a much more general appeal. Also like PGE Skip Beat is a comedy, though while comedy is the main focus of PGE it’s only a component, though a well and frequently used one, of Skip Beat. Skip Beat is about predominantly about relationships, as seen through the focus of a woman seeking revenge against a dismissive and emotionally abusive ex-girlfriend while at the same time discovering that she has actual affection towards her selected path for revenge, in this case acting. That was a terrible sentence. But this is not a terrible series.

When I say its about relationships I don’t simply mean its a standard love story, it does spend some time examining how the characters act in relationships and exploring how dysfunctional the majority of them are. Also, while romance or at least advancing intimacy, does share a good bit of the spotlight the series also focuses on other kinds of relationships, between friends, between siblings, etc. This mixture stops the emotional stuff from getting overly cloying. To be honest while it may sound all lovey dovey the main focus of most story arcs is on the protagonists job and her increasing skill as an actress. The relationship stuff generally serves to underscore the story or serve as a stumbling block.

It also has that addictive quality of making you really want to see what comes next, when I initially watched the anime adaptation (my first exposure to the series) I ended up watching it all in one go and I tend to read the manga in the same mass consumption vein. I think this would be appealing to anyone who likes a good story (and of course I imagine women would find it quite appealing as its targeted towards them). While I did read the Bunty, Judy and Mandy as a young lad (because frankly I’ll read almost any comic) as well as Enid Blyton’s girls boarding school series I don’t think I’m particularly attuned to the female psyche (the dwindling amount of female friends I have would seem to support that) so I wouldnt hesitate to recommend this to male readers as well (and if you read it and feel threatened then just read something which is superficially super manly like The Breaker mentioned above).

Perfect Girl Evolution

(Volumes 28 Chapters 115 – Ongoing)

PGE is one of the few series I have picked up in print. There are four reasons I pick something up in print a) its not available scanlated, b) the quality of the scanlation is unreadable, c) its on an unmissable sale and d) its so good I want a permanent copy of it. The reason I bought PGE is a mixture of b) and d), much more the latter though. As well as being one of the few series I have in print PGE is also one of the few shoujo series I have read (multiple times at this point, as well as watching the anime). Generally (and unsurprisingly) I don’t really enjoy shoujo, most likely because I am in now way part of its target audience. But there are some shoujo manga whose sheer quality allows it to transcend its genre. PGE is one of these manga (as is Skip Beat below). It’s mixture of comedy, action and drama makes it an enjoyable read no matter what you’re packing between your legs.

PGE is primarily a comedy manga with solid chunk of action and some very slow burning drama. The comedy is near uniformly excellent. Despite the central joke being re-used a fair amount it always has a nice spin on it that stops it becoming stale and keeps the reader engaged, and more importantly, laughing. While I’m not a huge fan of the shoujo art-style it works quite well for this series and ties in nicely with the central conceit of the story. If you don’t feel like taking the jump directly into comics aimed at teenage Japanese girls then I would suggest checking out the story. Its a more or less faithful adaptation of the manga but wrapped up in a more accessible visual style.

As mentioned above PGE also has a fair amount of action, all of which is generally very well used and feels appropriately bad-ass. Actually the action sequences are something I generally look forward to as they’re usually pretty epic (lowercase e). The drama is also well done, if relatively sparse, the relationships between the characters grow and develop but never in particularly shocking ways.

Princess Resurrection

(Volumes 16 Chapters 70 – Ongoing)

Princess Resurrection has a weirdly poor reputation (both for the anime and manga) around certain of the darker corners of the internet. While I don’t want to dismiss peoples opinion with “That’s wrong” (thats a lie I couldnt give a shit about their opinion) one gets the feeling from reading their criticism that they simply don’t grasp the central thrust of Princess Resurrection. Princess Resurrection is a unashamed homage to horror. To horror films, books, urban legends, you name it, Princess Resurrection will probably work it in.

Like the best homage’s Princess Resurrection doesnt simply clumsily ape what it loves. It takes common elements of the horror genre and re-imagines them within the framing mechanism of the series unique world and plot. Sometimes they play the homage straight, other times they put a fairly unique spin on it. That’s without mentioning the unique elements of the series story, which are strongly present and serve as the main drivers for the plot. They are also generally privileged in terms of overall coverage.

Taken on its own merits PR would be a solid and entertaining supernatural action horror series (with some well done comedy elements and the occasional bit of well realised pathos). I’d be reading it one way or another. But when you add in the cleverly written horror homages it kicks it up a notch from good to excellent. Its this latter element that I feel a lot of detractors are missing (particularly when accusations “copying” are levelled at it). I suppose if you arent a big horror fan you might understandably miss or fail to appreciate a number of the references. Which would be unfortunate.

3×3 Eyes

(Volumes 40 Chapters 576 – Completed)

Ah 3×3 Eyes, back in the good old days of 1995 when anime and manga was thin on the ground the only way to get ones hand on it in Dundalk was either via Channel 4’s late night showing of it or from the dingy back room of Supervision on Park Street. I believe I first saw 3×3 Eye’s after stumbling in drunk one Friday night and throwing on the television. It stood out from a lot of the manga available back then as it wasnt just an hour and a half of blood and partial nudity. After securing a copy of the tapes (ah my good old dual deck Amstrad VCR) they got some serious rotation as the place I was living at the time had no television signal so the tenants video collections were generally watched in an endless loop (fuck me if I ever see Labyrinth again it will be too soon). While I enjoyed the anime adaptation it had one critical flaw, it was far, far too short. It presented you with the beginning of an epic tale and left you hanging. Back in those days not only were scanlations basically non-existent, at that point I didnt even know it was based on a manga.

A decade or so passed and I largely forgot about 3×3 Eyes until one day I happened to notice it being mentioned on Baka Updates. My joy at the discovery was not insignificant, a chance to catch up with a story I’d long been denied in tandem with twenty volumes of manga to read was quite the find. So I dived into it and tore through it. Of course when I reached the end of the scanlations I knew I’d have to wait for the final twenty volumes to be translated, but the scanlation team was firing them out at a respectable rate. So no worries there then, right? Wrong. The translation team took three years to release the last two volumes. Which was, well, pretty shit.

So five years later I was finally ready to experience the full 3×3 Eyes epic, and I did, and it was well worth the wait. 3×3 Eye’s (unsurprisingly) feels like everything I liked about anime and manga when I was just getting into it. The action is excellent, the storyline is a nice mixture of interesting and predictable, the world and powers presented are suitably (and interestingly) outre, etc. I suppose for some newer readers the art-style and certain story elements may feel fairly “old-school” or at least redolent of nineties design sensibilities. This is rather inevitable as it was written from 1987 – 2002.

It’s hard to try and encapsulate forty volumes into a few lines, and as ever I’m not really interested in a “proper review” (hence the links), due to the series length it consists of a number of large sub-arcs, all of which generally have their own “feel”. Overall I think the basic elements of the story are the most interesting, elements introduced in issue one continue to be interesting across the whole series. Stuff like the Sanjiyan Unkara, who and what they are, who exactly Pai is, etc. are all introduced very early but answered only towards the very end. There are some very nice plot twists that feel night forced nor telegraphed. The characters are generally interesting and somewhat detailed. They do sometimes feel a little lacking in depth, serving more to drive the story forward than to be explored. This is a trait of action manga from around this period and it doesnt unduly throw me but it may be a little strange for some readers.

That aside though Yakumo is one of my favourite protagonists and his power set is one which isnt seen that often but is nearly always excellent when it pops up. I’m not sure if its a personal quirk or simply an element of human nature but I have a soft spot for characters who are either a) immortal or b) have redonkulous regeneration (or both). I especially like it when they take advantage of their immortality/regeneration to do things that would absolutely fuck up a normal person. Luckily Yakumo loves doing that which makes all the action scenes really interesting.

I suppose the one weak point is Pai, not that she’s particularly annoying per se (though she is at times) its just that as I get older and even more cynical I sometimes find it hard to buy into universally nice characters. But it never reached the point where I was skipping pages in frustration, which has a lot to do with the quality of the pacing and plot.

Listening to: Pink Floyd - Wish you were here

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