Welcome to the continuation of my year-end “Best Manga” roundup! Again, I remind you that when I say “best,” I mean “favorite.”
(For “Top Five New Print Manga” and “Top Five New Digital-Only Manga” see Part 1.)
Top Five Continuing Series
Wandering Son | by Takako Shimura | Fantagraphics – This series about two transgender children in modern-day Japan has been a favorite since it debuted last year thanks to its delicate, truthful storytelling and understated artwork. From my review of volume one: “First of all, this is a elegantly-crafted, character-driven story that lets us into its characters’ private worlds with both candor and delicacy. We are brought into their lives completely, and though we’re privy to their some of their most private thoughts and fears, there is never a sense that we’re observing them as “subjects” or invading their privacy—something I often feel when experiencing “issue”-focused fiction. the real secret to this is that they aren’t treated as though their gender is all that they are, despite how much weight that aspect of their identity is being given in their thoughts and hearts over the course of this volume.” Its most recent volume (three) goes a bit darker and deeper, only heightening my interest in the series (and I absolutely adore new character Makoto). Volume four is due out in April of 2013.
Ooku | by Fumi Yoshinaga | VIZ Media With her wordy, idiosyncratic style and simple, elegant artwork, Fumi Yoshinaga has been a favorite mangaka of mine since the very first time I read her work. Her longest series to-date, Ooku is a departure from much of her other work—darker and more serious—but perhaps even more brilliant. From my review of volumes 1-3: “Yoshinaga displays a new talent for creating cold, self-serving, and even cruel characters who are complex enough to be, not just interesting, but actually relatable. And she does it just about as far out of her comfort zone as possible. There is nothing warm or quirky about Ooku. Life inside the shogun’s chambers is nowhere near casual or even remotely lighthearted. Even Yoshinaga’s earlier stabs at period pieces (such as Gerard & Jacques or Garden Dreams) are inappropriate for comparison, so great is the difference in weight and complexity … As a fan of Fumi Yoshinaga, josei manga, and the Viz Signature imprint, there is no question that a series like this, even just in theory, is a very exciting work. Fortunately, this truth extends beyond the theoretical and into the actual. Ooku is beautiful, engaging, and a very exciting work indeed.” Volume eight is due out in September of 2013.
A Bride’s Story | by Kaoru Mori | Yen Press This breathtakingly beautiful series about a young woman in early 19th century Central Asia who leaves her family to marry a boy eight years her junior is quietly, lovingly obsessed with its historical period—and to great effect. From my review of volume one: “While a lesser writer might easily lose the thread without a clear point of view to cling to, Mori uses the opportunity to focus on detail. No expression or bit of dialogue is wasted. Every moment is deliberate and carefully crafted to eke out these characters and their burgeoning relationships. As a result, we feel that we’re getting to know the characters just as slowly as they are becoming comfortable with each other, something I found to be incredibly effective as a reader … This is a quiet, slow-moving manga, with an emphasis on character development, yet it also has some of the most thrilling moments I’ve experienced in my comics reading to date.” Volume four is due out in January.
We Were There | by Yuki Obata | VIZ Media This is an especially personal choice, as is obvious from just a glance at any of my reviews of the series. Few shoujo stories have resonated with me so personally, or made me cry quite so often. From my review of volume four: “I honestly was not sure if I could write a review of this volume. It hit me so hard and so close to home, I spent a solid half-hour after the first time I read it sobbing violently to myself in a room at the back of the house. This is exactly why I have to write this review, however. For a comic book to affect me so strongly, I think it must be a pretty exceptional comic, and people should be told. The writing in this manga is so genuine and extraordinary it’s difficult to put into words, but that’s my job here so I’ll try … These feelings–this painful honesty that is the one bit of chaos we humans can’t tame is what We Were There is all about, and it manages to express all of it without ever resorting to melodrama or syrupy romance, always maintaining the same emotional sincerity and restrained, wistful quality it has possessed from the beginning.” Though a couple of the series’ middle volumes left me overly-frustrated with its main romantic pairing, volume fifteen has reminded me why I adored this story from the start. Its 16th and final volume is due out in May of 2013.
Pandora Hearts | by Jun Mochizuki | Yen Press Speaking of personal choices, here’s a title you’re unlikely to see on many of this year’s “Best of” lists. A few moments browsing the tag for Pandora Hearts on Manga Bookshelf will reveal things like my personal obsession with its delicious costuming and numerous reviews peppered with descriptions like “whimsy spliced with menace.” It will also reveal a number of the series’ flaws, primarily its often convoluted plotting. And hey, Pandora Hearts may be bit of a mess, but it’s a beautiful mess, and that’s my very favorite kind. From my review of volume three: “This quality–an inexplicably likable creepiness–is what really carries this series, created by a powerful combination of tragically beautiful characters and idiosyncratically beautiful artwork … Though Mochizuki’s slow revelation of the mysteries of her universe may be painful for some, she’s got me decidedly hooked with her sad, complex characters and their profoundly oversized shirtsleeves. For the sake of these things, I can wait forever.” Xerxes Break 4evah. Volume fourteen is due out in February.
Top Five Concluding Series
Twin Spica | by Kou Yaginuma | Vertical, Inc. Though I’ve put off reading the final volume of this series, it’s only because I’m so reluctant to let it end! This charming, charming series about aspiring, young astronauts has been one of the brightest spots on the manga landscape since it debuted in 2010. From my review of volume one: “Though this series finished its run in seinen magazine Comic Flapper just last year, its simple artwork and wistful tone make its first volume read like an instant classic. Even the volume’s cover art, with its innocent imagery and sepia-like warmth, evokes feelings of nostalgia. Also, though the story’s foundation is set firmly in hard sci-fi, it is its heroine’s poignant and occasionally whimsical inner life that really defines its voice. Asumi provides the heart of this story, and it is a strange and wonderful heart indeed.” I’ll be savoring every moment of that final volume.
13th Boy | by SangEun Lee | Yen Press Oh, Beatrice, Beatrice… we loved you so well. This Korean manhwa by SangEun Lee is probably one of my top three favorite girls’ comics of the past five years. From our farewell post on Off the Shelf: “On the topic of Hee-So’s pain, something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately … is just how much mileage an author can get out of managing to both mock and love her/his protagonist … SangEnug Lee makes no bones about Hee-So being self-consiously dramatic (and also ridiculous) here in the series’ final volume, which ends up making her more sympathetic and relatable rather than less so for the reader. Watching Hee-So come to school every day in comically bundled-up mourning after the loss of Beatrice (visibly sweating in her seasonally-inappropriate garb, but unwilling to cop to that) only makes her grief feel more real, because man we all were that teenager at some point or another, whether it manifested itself the same way or not. I mean, on the face of it, 13th Boy‘s odd supernatural elements make it one of the strangest little romance series I’ve ever read, while Hee-So’s overblown teen angst also makes it one of the best.” I miss it already.
House of Five Leaves | by Natsume Ono | VIZ Media Natsume Ono can be hit-or-miss (mostly “hit” for me, though not always) but House of Five Leaves was an instant favorite, and will likely stand as one of my favorite series for a long, long time. From my review of volume four: “What makes House of Five Leaves so consistently intriguing, though, is the failed samurai that provides the series’ heart. With Masa at its core, there’s always an odd mingling of warmth and unease running through the story. These feelings are where Masa lives, and one has the sense that this has always been the case. There’s a heartbreaking flashback in this volume, in which we see Masa being basically thrown out of his home for being so ill-suited as a samurai. Yet it’s hard to imagine exactly what he should be. He’s all ambiguity (and a little self-loathing), and certainly not a hero, yet it’s impossible not to care for him, and it’s obvious that Ono does. I’ve loved this series from the beginning, and it’s only become more dear to me over time. It’s probably my favorite of Ono’s work, and that’s saying quite a lot.”
Cross Game | by Mitsuru Adachi | VIZ Media Suspicious of sports manga, I put off reading this series for quite a while, despite many recommendations from my colleagues. This is a decision I would come to regret! From my review of volume one: “It’s difficult to know what to say about Cross Game that hasn’t already been said (and better) by my cohorts, two of whom selected it as their favorite “C” manga. Probably the best I can do is to just say, “they’re right.” This is sports manga as it should always be done—moving, character (and relationship)-driven, and as deeply rooted in the lives of its characters as it is in the sport that brings them together. And while it doesn’t require a background or interest in baseball to enjoy Cross Game, Adachi doesn’t trivialize the sport either. The series is dazzling thanks to spectacular emotional resonance rather than super-human displays of athleticism … It’s exactly my kind of manga, blessed with strong female characters and lots of emotional messiness, while pleasantly lacking in melodrama.” It’s worth mentioning that this series is available in its entirety (8 double-length volumes) by way of VIZ’s digital apps. If only it were even longer!
xxxHolic | by CLAMP | Del Rey Manga This is another very personal choice, though I’d argue its merits forever. Nearly four years after I posted Why you should read xxxHolic here at Manga Bookshelf (and at least one year more since it originated in my old fannish blog), the series finally ended (at least for now), and as one of the maybe five or so people who didn’t hate the ending (in fact, I actually liked it and felt it was extremely appropriate to the series), I feel compelled to include it on this list. Though the series suffered somewhat from a heavy reliance on its crossover with Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle, its protagonist, Kimihiro Watanuki, remains my favorite CLAMP character to-date. From that “persuasion post”: “xxxHolic is one of those stories that appears to be one thing at first and then at a certain point you think, “Ah ha! This is what it is really about!” Then several volumes later you think, “AH HA! No, THIS is what it’s really about!” I have had a couple of these moments already and I expect to have more before the series is completed.” And indeed I did.
Do you have favorites to share?