Mammoth Book of Best New Manga
Ilya, ed.
Running Press

It’s rare to find a book with not one, not two, but three prevarications in its title. The Mammoth Book of Best New Manga is, in the first place, not manga — hardly any of the creators are from Japan (most appear to be from the U.S., England, and China.) And while some of the stories are obviously in the manga tradition, many of the others look like…just plain comics. Nor is the work in the volume necessarily “new” — the first piece, “Kitsune Tales” by Andre Watson and Woodrow Phoenix, for example, was published originally in 2003, five years before this volume’s 2008 copyright. And, finally, the volume is not a “best of” in any usual sense; the pieces weren’t selected from any defined pool that I can see. Rather, they seem to have been chosen from the author’s network of friends, acquaintances, and readings. In some cases creators came to his attention through contests he judged. A couple of the entries here are even submissions.

In other words, if, like me, you read the title and thought, “Hey, this is going to show me some of the most exciting work in Japanese comics created during the last year or so!” — well, you’re going to be seriously disappointed, because this ain’t that. Instead, it’s just another anthology, like Kramer’s Ergot or Mome, though in comparison to those two series it’s aimed at a younger, less artsy audience.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with anthologies per se. A pulpier, all ages Kramer’s Ergot — that’d be great. Unfortunately, the confusion evinced by Brand New Manga’s title seems to reflect, not only marketing gone haywire, but a general lack of editorial vision. Even when I don’t like Sammy Harkham’s selections (Kevin Huizenga…eh) they at least feel like conscious, idiosyncratic aesthetic statements. Whereas much of the material in Best New Manga seems to have been chosen at random.

Robert Deas’ “Infinity Rising,” for example, is entirely predictable space opera, complete with a torched farmhouse lifted from Star Wars, a gratuitous revenge motif, some gratuitous violence against women, and preposterous, pumped-up anatomy, digitally-colored so that the muscles look like hunks of plastic. Mitz’s “Pilot” is a by-the-numbers sci-fi YA kid-gets-super-powers story; it’s charming and competent, enough, sure, but it’s hard to see why an editor would jump up and say, “Yes, I must have this rather than all the other work that looks much like it!” Or again, Rainbow Buddy’s yaoi entry “Snowfall” shows some kid looking up and mooning enthusiastically as images from the past bleed into each other and everything is flecked with stars — fine if you like that sort of thing, I’m sure…but if you like that sort of thing, surely you’ve seen lots and lots of similar exercises as good as or better than this one?

I could go on and on, really: why the Tank Girl rip off? The utterly clichéd coma-victim-saved-by-dream-ghost-girl riff? Why a story devoted entirely to the saccharine question, “Wouldn’t it be cute if we drew a cat as a human with cat ears?” And, good lord, if you have to print a sixth-rate “Is-the-android-really-human?” story, please try to pick one that doesn’t end with the protagonist staring up wistfully into the sky thinking to herself: “I don’t know what my future will hold, but I won’t be bound by my past.” That’s just egregious.

The book is almost 450 pages long, and at that length even the most benighted editor is bound to include at least a few decent pieces. Michael Kacar’s Ramen Jiman does a funny take on Iron Chef with some genuinely loopy gags (generations of heifers force-fed red-hot-chili to fulfill their destiny as a component of spicy beef ramen) and very accomplished black and white shonen style art. Gilian Sein Ying Ha’s “Darumafish” features beautifully scratchy but controlled linework, almost as if Edward Gorey had decided to draw shojo. Laura Howell’s “The Bizarre Adventures of Gilbert and Sullivan” made me laugh out loud several times. Gilbert’s mischievous nieces run amok, but Arthur Sullivan is oddly placid. “Even now, they’re filling your trousers with offal and you’re entirely unconcerned,” muses the hyper-deformed and disgruntled librettist. “Woman + My trousers = Good!” exclaims Sullivan. Against such successes, though, you have to balance James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook’s unforgivably pretentious “Ground Zero-The Wedge,” in which a couple of New York hipsters burble on endlessly about lots of, like, far-out ideas, man, while the trendy, graffiti-inspired art tries desperately to be witty and self-referential. (Look! The characters are pulling up the edge of a panel! That’s so post-modern!)

In the intro, Ilya declares “Best New Manga exists to showcase the best of what’s new from the rising generation of international talent.” If I thought that this were really the best of what the rising generation of international talent had to offer, I’d be seriously depressed. Luckily, all you have to do is glance through, say, Dokebi Bride or Nana or even Bizenghast to know that there’s much superior work out there. Manga doesn’t need Ilya to promote it, and it will suffer no especial harm from having this anthology take its name in vain. Still, it’d be nice to have a title that more accurately reflected the contents. The Mammoth Book of Randomly Selected, Relatively Recent Comics has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

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This review was originally published in the Comics Journal.

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