Welcome to Manga Bookshelf’s Manga/Manhwa Holiday Gift Guide! I am one of many bloggers publishing such a guide over the next few days as a response to the New York Times Graphic Novel Gift Guide which turned up last week with not a single volume of manga included.
Now, with so many bloggers making recommendations at once, I’ve deliberately refrained from attempting to create anything like a comprehensive guide, instead focusing on series and genres I especially favor in fairly arbitrary groupings. For a rich, well-rounded shopping guide experience, I recommend making the rounds to everyone’s guides over the next week or so (Erica Friedman is keeping a list of participating bloggers over at Okazu and David Welsh is linking to entries as they go up at Precious Curmudgeon). But first, behold!
I only allowed myself three entries per category, which I promise was truly painful. Please enjoy.
Short and Sweet
For something easy on the pocketbook (and easy to wrap), take a look at these series, each of which is complete in five volumes or less.
|Paradise Kiss This earlier work from Ai Yazawa, the creator of NANA, about a young woman searching for herself and a group of fashion students searching for her, in my words, “comes as close to a perfect series as one could ever hope for. Its appealing, complicated characters, crisp, well-plotted, storytelling, sharp humor, and gorgeous art provide true reading pleasure from start to finish … Suffice it to say that Paradise Kiss, with its complex look at beauty, longing, and personal discovery, truly is a bit of manga paradise.”
|Dororo The first manga by Osamu Tezuka I ever read and still my favorite, Dororo is whimsical, cute, and seriously brutal. The story’s characters are more poignant than I ever imagined they could be at the start, “but at one point I realized that I’d reached page 108 and I’d become completely enthralled.” Complete in three volumes from Vertical Inc., this series also won the 2009 Eisner Award for “Best U.S. Edition of International Material—Japan”. These volumes are beautifully produced, with a look elegant and dignified enough for anyone’s bookshelf.
|Flower of Life This four-volume series comes from the brilliant Fumi Yoshinaga, whose gift for characterization through dialogue is honestly unmatched. Also, as I’ve said before, she’s “funny–really, really funny, yet simultaneously poignant and frequently deep.” Once again, I must link to Shaenon Garrity who says, “Thank you, Fumi Yoshinaga, for continuing to be better than everyone!” This series revolves around a group of high-schoolers, some of whom are members of their school’s manga club, so there is especially a lot here for readers who are already fans of the medium.
I Enjoy Being a Girl
If you’re looking for a series aimed at teen girls, here are a few choices, each with a very different feel.
|After School Nightmare This story may be set in high school, but behind its cover is a seriously complex psychological drama that becomes deeper and darker with each of its ten volumes. Published in full by Go!Comi, it follows the story of Ichijo Mashiro whose deepest secret becomes impossible to keep once he is enrolled in a mysterious after school class in which he shares a communal nightmare with other students. In the nightmare, the students are revealed to each other in their “true forms” with all their deepest insecurities laid bare for all to see. You can read my review of the first volume here. This story has fantastic art and is compelling to the end. A truly great read.
|We Were There Probably my favorite of Viz Media’s recent additions to their Shojo Beat imprint, I’ve reviewed several volumes of this series here at Manga Bookshelf, and I’m constantly blown away by its ability to go deep into the human heart. “We Were There takes popular manga stereotypes and turns them into real people … it’s immensely refreshing to see a regular, confused teenager interacting with another regular, confused teenager, and this somehow manages to be more poignant than a thousand grand declarations of love ever could be.” A great choice for teens or adults. This series is ongoing, with its eighth volume due out in December.
|Goong Another ongoing series I’ve reviewed often, Goong is set in an alternative modern-day South Korea with a constitutional monarchy in place. Thanks to an old agreement between their grandfathers, Chae-Kyung, an average high school girl, is betrothed to the Crown Prince. The story combines real-life challenges of arranged marriage, a classic fish-out-of-water story, tabloid-worthy royal drama, and typical teen angst, all wrapped up in a delectable soap-opera bow. Currently a top seller in Korea (source), the series is at eighteen volumes and counting. Yen Press has released seven volumes so far.
For a racier and/or more sophisticated read, here are some options certainly not exclusive to the ladies.
|NANA Pretty obviously one of my favorite series, this story of two young women named Nana who meet on the train to Tokyo “is an incredibly compelling and emotionally engaging read, and each volume will leave you begging for more.” Sure, it’s got sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, but more than that, it has incredibly real characters who will invade your reader’s heart. Though early volumes are appropriate for teens, the series contains nudity and further adult content later on, so parents should know what they’re getting into. NANA is ongoing, with its twentieth volume soon to be released in English from Viz Media. It’s a long haul, but well worth the trip.
|Nodame Cantabile Easily one of the quirkiest series on this list, this story of friendship and (eventually) romance between an aspiring conductor and one-of-a-kind (really) piano student at a Japanese music conservatory is funny, touching, and incredibly, incredibly charming. Characterization is king in this unique romantic comedy, and despite the silent medium, you’ll swear you can hear the music. I my review of volume one, I wrote, “Nodame Cantabile seems to have been written exactly with me in mind.” Considering its huge popularity in Japan, I don’t think it’s just me. This series ended at twenty-three volumes in October. Del Rey has published sixteen so far in English.
These stories are from artists who weave tales of ethereal beauty–mysterious, melancholy, and each stunning in its own way.
|Children of the Sea One of my favorite series so far this year, Children of the Sea is the mysterious tale of a young girl and her friendship with two boys raised in the sea. “Having initially encountered this series at Viz’s new website IKKI… I was struck first by its gorgeous, watercolor-like artwork and otherworldly tone … with an ethereal, impressionistic feel, the world of the sea is brought to life, pulling us in like a strong undertow. By the end of the book, one begins to believe the ocean may be right outside–so real are the sensations of hot sand, cold, foamy water, and the smell of salt in the wind.” The second volume is due from Viz in December.
|Mijeong Though his work still feels immature, this collection of short stories by manhwa artist Byun Byung-Jun promises “great future for the artist, whose insight into his deeply lost and broken characters is nearly as stunning as his often impressionistic art style … The collection wanders in and out between true melancholy and dark humor, sometimes with more success than others. ” I recommend reading my review before buying. It is perfect gift for the right person and a probable miss for anyone else. Beautiful, dark, and a bit meandering, this is definitely an adult’s book. Provides a nice contrast to much of the Korean comics currently available in English. Nicely produced by NBM Publishing.
|Mushishi “Called ‘verdancy’ or ‘the green things’ by some, mushi are primordial beings close to the original forms of life. They live in every corner of the world, in many different forms, though few humans are ever able to perceive them. Some who can see mushi learn to make a living by it. These people are called ‘mushishi.'” (Review, Vol. 6) Following the story of a wandering mushishi named Ginko, this episodic tale is one of the rare series I’d say actually could be picked up in the middle with very little lost. “Ginko’s real tragedy is that it is humans who seem truly alien, more often than he could ever be comfortable with.” (Review, Vol. 7) Complete in ten volumes, Del Rey is releasing the final three vols. as an omnibus in July, 2010.
Spirits, superstitions, and a talking cactus? Here are a few series both weird and wonderful.
|xxxHolic Another obvious favorite, this series revolves around Kimihiro Watanuki, a teen boy who wishes to rid himself of the power to see (and attract) spirits. Circumstances lead him to become indentured to a woman named Yuuko who has the power to grant wishes. With its heady mix of folklore, religion, and philosophy, this beautifully drawn series is the perfect gift for anyone interested in the occult. With the English-translated volumes nearly caught up to Japan (where the series appears to be winding down), “What read as cold philosophy at the beginning of this series has become intimate personal drama fourteen volumes in.” (Review) This series’ single downside is that later volumes become quite dependent on crossover series Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle.
|Time and Again This will seem like a strange choice, since my review of volume one reveals that I am not yet completely sold on the series. Reading ahead in Yen Plus, however, has given me much hope and a bit of a longing for ghost stories. “The stories are steeped in a solemn stew of religion and folklore, finding their inspiration in Chinese poems (like Li Bai’s “Writing in a Strange Place”), Japanese fables (”The Tongue-Cut Sparrow”), and other sources of varying East Asian origin. Even its original title is borrowed from a Goryeo Dynasty-era Korean poet. Though the result of all this inspiration is not nearly as profound or thoughtful as one might expect, the book is intriguing and emotionally affecting all the same.” Available in December from Yen Press.
|13th Boy I swear it’s not all about the talking cactus, but that sure doesn’t hurt. This supernatural teen romance starts off slowly, but “What was charming but incoherent in the first volume of this unusual supernatural romance has become simply charming in its second volume now that the story has apparently hit its stride” (Review) Definitely not for a reader who hates waiting for crucial information, but wow what a ride this is. Recommended for fans of very quirky romance, this could be a great introduction to manhwa for fans of cracktastic shojo manga, like Moon Child or Please Save My Earth. Yen Press lists seven volumes, with the third being released in February, 2010.
Sci-Fi on the Side
If sci-fi is the way to go, here are some wildly different series to choose from.
|Pluto Based on volume three of Tezuka’s Astro Boy (“The Greatest Robot on Earth”), Naoki Urasawa’s version of the story runs for eight volumes from Viz Media. Possibly the best new manga published in English this year, Pluto is well-plotted and utterly fascinating. It’s even made me cry. The story “begins by following a detective named Gesicht (a robot with exceptional sensory abilities) as he takes on two similar cases–the murder of a robot war hero who was beloved by the world and the murder of an activist who worked to preserve existing robot civil rights laws.” (Review) The rest is simply breathtaking. Volume seven ships in January.
|In the Starlight Back in August I recommended “Kyungok Kang’s action-packed sci-fi manhwa In The Starlight (which I have read but not yet reviewed), with its wonderful old-school feel (bring tissues).” I have still not reviewed this series, but the recommendation stands. A great choice for fans of the Magnificent 49ers, this series provides a ride on a powerful emotional roller-coaster with a terrific sci-fi/fantasy background. Available both in print an online from NETCOMICS, this series is ongoing. As with all their series, you can preview the first chapter for free at netcomics.com.
|They Were Eleven Speaking of the Magnificent 49ers, in 1995, Viz Media released this short sci-fi series by Moto Hagio in four “flipped” pamphlet-style issues. Though they are obviously out of print, you can show your sci-fi fan just how much you care by taking advantage of this series’ frequent availability on ebay (which is where I got my copies). Read my review to be sure, but I promise it’s a gem. “Reminiscent of the short stories of Ray Bradbury or Zenna Henderson, this comic uses the thrilling mysteries of space fantasy to provide food for thought about humanity and how we relate to and survive with each other.” I’d recommend this for comics fans who don’t usually read manga. Plus, everybody else.
Sometimes a Fantasy
Here’s some fantasy, just the way I like it. You won’t need a map to find your way through any of these stories!
|Fullmetal Alchemist Another series I talk about too much, Fullmetal Alchemist tells the tale of two brothers who will do almost anything just to rectify a single mistake. Set in a world where alchemy is a legitimate (and powerful) scientific technique, this series by Hiromu Arakawa is expertly drawn and exceptionally well-plotted, with appeal well beyond its shonen demographic. Heavy on both action and emotional drama of the very best kind. This series is ongoing, with twenty-one volumes currently available in English from Viz Media. This is a great gift for a teen boy or, apparently, a forty-year-old woman. So take your pick.
|Pandora Hearts If the epic mass of the previous two suggestions is simply too daunting, check out this new series from Yen Press with its first volume just being released in December. This twisted fantasy, heavily influenced by Lewis Carroll, has a complex plot better described in my review. “The series has offered more questions than answers at this point, relying mainly on the strength of its characters to hold the reader’s attention through the din. That said, there is enough promise in this fun, mysterious fantasy to ease all doubts for the moment and simply anticipate. Fast-paced, enigmatic, and attractive to the eye, Pandora Hearts is easy to recommend.”
For the Young & Young at Heart
Here are some great choices that easily appeal to young and old alike.
|Hikaru no Go A charming story about a boy, a ghost, and a board game, Hikaru no Go was my personal introduction to manga and I absolutely recommend it for that purpose. Truly appropriate for all ages, this story especially benefits from its well-developed characters and strong, beautiful artwork. Early volumes are overly Americanized, but this is rectified later on. Complete in twenty-one volumes, Viz has currently released seventeen. Check out my reviews here but beware of major spoilers!
Bang For Your Buck
For a whole lot of manga in just one volume, here are gifts that come complete without breaking the bank!
|Solanin “Solanin captures perfectly that particular time of life when each of us is first faced with the question of whether to pursue our heart’s wildest dreams or to instead seek happiness in less obvious places–that time when we determine whether we can (or must) succumb to a mediocre existence and what that even means in the first place.” (Review) Originally published in two volumes in Japan, Viz has released Solanin in one hefty tome, which is absolutely perfect for the series. This is a great choice for fans of indie comics, even those who usually don’t read manga.
|Castle of Dreams For something very different, check out this double-length anthology of short stories by Kare Kano creator Masami Tsuda. Compiled from two volumes from vastly different periods in Tsuda’s career (released by TOKYOPOP), the stories vary significantly in tone and quality, but the overall result is quite satisfying. From my review: “Though few of the stories in Castle of Dreams are truly remarkable, the volume as a whole offers a mixed bouquet of human feeling, with just enough color and delicacy to please.” A nice gift for shojo fans who might have missed it when it was first released.
Boys Who Love Boys
Does your loved one spend her free time scribbling erotic tales of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin getting down on the quarterdeck of the HMS Sophie? May I suggest, then, one of these…
|Future Lovers One of the first yaoi series I found to genuinely love, Future Lovers, the story of two high school teachers who find romance together, ” is one of the most engagingly natural boys’ love stories I’ve read … The characters are interesting, they have real chemistry, and it is impossible not to root for them as they face the very real challenges in their relationship.” I’ve reviewed both volumes here at Manga Bookshelf, but this is an almost universally praised series, and it’s not hard to see why. Published in two volumes by Deux Press, this is a must-read for any fan of the genre and possibly of the medium in general.
|U Don’t Know Me This story is in many ways the opposite of Future Lovers in that it “takes just about every cringe-worthy yaoi cliche in the book–schoolboys, rape, sex between brothers (almost), even the whole seme/uke business–and makes it actually a rich, real part of the story.” (Review) Unusual for a manhwa in that it reads from right-to-left, this single volume story about two childhood friends turned lovers was compiled from a series of donginji by manhwa-ga Yeri Na (author of Do Whatever You Want). It’s surprisingly moving, with exactly the right amount of drama and sexual content that actually moves the story forward. Highly recommended for fans of the genre and a great example of fantastic Korean BL from NETCOMICS.
|Age Called Blue Also from NETCOMICS, this single-volume from the fabulous est em tells the story of bandmates Nick and Billy who are trying to figure out what they really are to each other, alongside the story of Pete and Joe, who didn’t figure it out soon enough. “What’s really effective in this story is how est em weaves together the lives of all four men … Although Joe and Pete ultimately fail to get what they need from each other, thanks to pride and the cruelty of fate, it is their music that brings Billy and Nick together in the first place and their influence that helps the two younger men realize what is most important to them and just how fragile that can be.” (Review) Speaks for itself, right?
|Moon and Sandals Here’s where I cheat on my three-only rule, because I can’t help mentioning Moon and Sandals by the still-brilliant Fumi Yoshinaga, published in English by DMP. Telling the stories of both a teen and adult couple, like all her work, this series is lovely and charming and manages to make typical yaoi scenarios lovely and charming as well. This is a great choice for readers new to the genre and anyone who just enjoys listening to Yoshinaga talk. A tip! If you head on over to the Yaoi Club, you can pick up both volumes for $3 apiece!
Or better yet… give her something that leaves much more to the imagination.
|Banana Fish Despite its BL-buzz, even Fred Schodt described Banana Fish as “…one of the few girls’ manga a red-blooded Japanese male adult could admit to reading without blushing.” Frankly, its appeal is pretty large. In my post, Making the Case for Banana Fish I said, “One of the things I love best about this series is that despite the fact that it is not a boys’ love manga, it has everything I’ve ever searched for in one. Honestly. It has a complex plot (featuring street gangs, organized crime, government conspiracy, hit men, etc.) that builds up slowly and effectively over 19 volumes, providing that kind of incredible suspense and excitement that can only be accomplished with a long, well-paced story. ” Long, but well worth it. Published by Viz Media.
|One Thousand and One Nights Though it shares some elements in common with Banana Fish (I’ve even written a post comparing the two), What is unique and fantastic about One Thousand and One Nights (Yen Press) is its stories-within-the-story which toss aside all concept of linear time, ranging from early human civilization to present-day. In this Korean re-telling of the original stories (with Scheherazade played as a man) there is some homoeroticism, sure, but more than that, there are stories–lots and lots of stories, beautifully told. Though I’ve heard this series described as a “guilty pleasure” it’s hard for me to feel guilt about reading something so thoroughly engaging. Warning for heavy violence and heavier beauty.
|Wild Adapter Speaking of violence, there are few series written for women with as much blood as Wild Adapter, but I knew few who can resist its addictive charm. Telling the story of an ex-yakuza and his foundling “pet,” wrapped up in a tale of organized crime and dangerous drugs, this series, too, shares some kindred elements with Banana Fish but with a more modern, emotionally-present feel. Seemingly stalled at six volumes from TOKYOPOP, “Though Wild Adapter may seem to appeal most to fans of boys’ love thanks to the close relationship between the two lead males, its mix of action, mystery, organized crime, and supernatural elements really should provide something for everyone, and everyone needs an addiction like this.” (Review)