This piece is so out of date because it’s reprinted from The Comics Journal.
This year I thought I’d use the Journal’s best-of issue as an excuse to go through some of my wife’s giant, teetering piles of manga. Of course, that makes this more a “best-of what I read recently” list than an actual “best-of everything that was put out this year” list. But, surely that’s not without precedent. In any case, here’s the highlights of what I found:
The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, by Eiji Otsuka and Housui Yamazaki, Dark Horse.
Otsuka’s story blends humor, melodrama, and horror in a style reminiscent of *Buffy the Vampire Slayer* — though you don’t have to watch Sarah Michelle Gellar emote, thank goodness. Five wannabe Buddhist priests without the connections they’d need to get a job at a temple band together to salve the spirits of the dead and make a few bucks in the process. Each of the protagonists has special powers (Kuro Karatsu can speak to the dead, Makino has studied embalming, etc.) and their adventures range from merely improbable to utterly, goofily ridiculous — they battle an evil actuary in one episode. The writing is witty and the plotting clever, but what really carries the series is Housoi Yamazaki’s viscerally detailed, exquisitely composed art. The opening sequence of the opening volume (an establishing shot of a mountain, zooming into a forest with a corpse hanging from a tree, to a close-up of the corpse’s bloated, fly-covered face) has all the insouciant swagger of that first song, first solo on Led Zeppelin I — it lets you know, right off the bat, that you are in the hands of one bad motherfucker.
Forest of Gray City, by Uhm Jung-Hyum, IceKunion
I’ve come to have very high expectations of Korean manga (or mahwa), and Forest of Gray City doesn’t disappoint. Yun-Ook Jang is a young woman trying to turn herself into an adult, with intermittent success — she is managing to make a go of it as a freelance artist, but she drinks too much and her cash flow isn’t all it could be. So she takes in a tenant:17-year old Bum-Moo Lee. Though Bum-Moo actually seems older and more responsible than Yun-Ook at first, he has his vulnerabilities too. Over the course of the first volume, the two housemates tentatively start to rely on each other as friends, and perhaps more.
The scenario itself is exquisitely romantic, and both Bum-Moo and Yun-Ook are given the full shoujo treatment —elegant, languid poses, flowing hair, giant limpid eyes. Their mutual attraction, repulsion and general confusion is pitch perfect — when Bum-Moo deadpans, “Is it okay to have a crush on you?” and Yun-Ook deadpans “no,” it’s funny and uncomfortable in just about equal amounts. It doesn’t hurt that, though this is Uhm’s first full-length story, she is already a masterful artist. Her use of grey shadings, and the way that she varies spacing — dropping borders, using insets, tilting the characters within the frames, even shifting the placement of speech bubbles — makes the narrative moments seem to wash into each other an intimate, dream-like blur. When she slows the pace by using a cleaner layout — as when Bung-Moo stops to look at the daybreak half way through the story — its almost inexplicably poignant. Only the first volume of this has been released, and the second has been delayed several times. If this series ends up getting canceled, I’m going to be really depressed.
The Wallflower, Tomoko Hayakawa, Del Ray.
My wife’s been trying to get me to check out this one forever. I ended up only reading the last four volumes, though I’m not sure it would make any more sense even if I started at the beginning. The plot, such as it is, centers around Sunako, a goth chick who likes to sit in her room and watch horror films. She lives with four bishonen (loosely translated as “effeminate yet hot”) boys, who intermittently try to turn her into a lady because if they do, the high-society landlady (who is Sunako’s aunt) will let them live in the apartment rent free. Oh, yeah, and Sunako also happens to be a frighteningly good cook. Also a deadly martial artist. And when she’s cranky, she spits blood. She’s also drop-dead gorgeous, in the few scenes where she’s not drawn as a hyper-deformed tiny cartoon doll with no eyes.
And if that all makes the series sound desperately incoherent— well, sort of. The whole thing is pulled together, though, by the author’s steadfast refusal to reform her main character. Sunako is a weirdo not because she had a tragic past or because she has low self-esteem or even because she’s a sensitive loner who’s rejected the shallow conformity of those around her. She’s just a weirdo because she’s a weirdo. The book manages the nifty trick of loving, but not judging, its protagonist and as a result, no matter how absurd the plot gets, it still makes emotional sense. Yes, even that scene where Sunako, holding a giant tray of shrimp, festoons herself with lightbulbs in order to confront the bishonen biker gang.
Gerard and Jaques, by Fumi Yoshinaga, BLU
Like most lefty free-speech-loving hipster sorts, I like to think that I’m fairly unshockable as far as porn goes. Trust the Japanese to prove me wrong. Gerard and Jacques opens with an unapologetic, underage rape. That squicky primal scene sets the tone for the series, which breezily wallows in the decadence of pre-Revolutionary France.:open marriages, threesomes, eager boy prostitutes, the whole, um, shebang. There’s also a tender love story, of course — Gerard, an older, experienced, cultured commoner, and Jacques, his ex-aristocratic servant, share philosophical disagreements, sporadic animosity, and barely sublimated lust. Yoshinaga’s very good at balancing character development with unflinching lasciviousness — in one scene, Gerard casually jerks Jacques off, then in the next, the two are back to a distant, charged wariness. It’s this balance, I think, that threw me when I read the book. When porn’s just porn, it’s hard to take it seriously, but when the characters actually have inner lives , the implications of all that sex start to be a bit unsettling. Which isn’t a bad thing.
Besides the above, I’d also unreservedly recommend Ai Yazawa’s Nana, Hitoshii Iwaaki’s Parasyte, and Youngran Lee’s Click. (I’d say more about them, but I’ve recently written reviews of all three for the Journal, and repeating myself seems likely to be tedious for everyone.)