Among certain parts of manga fandom, global manga (or OEL manga) is viewed as the comic-book equivalent of New Coke: the packaging might be similar, but the taste is different and, as these fans would have it, not as good as the original. It’s a shame this attitude persists, because there’s a growing community of artists in Europe and the United States whose work isn’t just a slavish imitation of popular Japanese models, but a unique synthesis of Eastern and Western styles. Below, I’ve highlighted ten global manga that best embody this fusion, and throw in a few honorable mentions for good measure.
A few caveats about this list. First, I’ve focused primarily on American artists, as my readership is based in the United States. If there are Canadian, European, Australian, or South American artists who I’ve neglected, please feel free to educate me below. Second, my list does not include manhua or manhwa, as those traditions are more established, and draw on some of the same artistic and cultural traditions as manga. And third, my list does not include such YA franchises as Maximum Ride, Odd Thomas, or Warriors, as I wanted to focus on original works. Got some additional recommendations? Please share them in the comments!
10. THE DREAMING
QUEENIE CHAN • TOKYOPOP • 3 VOLUMES
Not long after identical twins Jeanie and Amber Malkin enroll at a boarding school in the Australian outback, one of their classmates disappears, triggering a series of eerie, unexplained events. Queenie Chan creates the perfect atmosphere for this Picnic at Hanging Rock meets The Orphanage ghost story; with its Gothic architecture and period furnishings, the school looks like something from a Hammer Studio film, filled with walled-off chambers, mysterious paintings, and apparitions in Victorian dress. The first two volumes are solid and smartly paced, but the third suffers from a bad case of compression; one wishes that Tokyopop had given Chan four volumes instead of three so that Chan could show more and tell less. Still, it’s impossible to deny this emerging artist’s considerable talent, and easy to see why Del Rey hired her to adapt Odd Thomas from novel to manga. (Originally reviewed at PopCultureShock on 12/6/06.)
JEN LEE QUICK • TOKYOPOP • 2 VOLUMES (suspended)
Off*Beat, an ambitious mixture of science fiction, realism, and romance, focuses on Tory, a smart, lonely teen who lives with his mother in Queens. When a boy his own age moves in across the street, Tory becomes infatuated with Colin, observing and recording Colin’s behavior in a journal, and angling to become Colin’s math tutor. Midway through the story, Jen Lee Quick introduces a subplot that hints at Colin’s involvement with something called the Gaia Project — an organization that may be responsible for Colin’s mysterious blackouts. Unfortunately, Tokyopop pulled the plug on the third and final volume; we’ll never know if the Gaia conspiracy is real or a product of Tory’s vivid imagination. Either way, Off*Beat is an engrossing read that vividly evokes urban life and thoughtfully explores the boundaries between same-sex friendship and romance.
8. BLUE MONDAY
CHYNNA CLUGSTON • ONI PRESS • 4 VOLUMES
Though Chynna Clugston’s artwork suggests a strong manga influence, her take-no-guff female characters are a welcome departure from the plain Janes and trembling wallflowers found throughout shojo mangadom. Blue Monday charts the ups and downs of Bleu Finnegan, a California teen whose enthusiasms are all over the map: Adam Ant albums, Buster Keaton flicks, vintage mod fashions. Bleu spends most of her time hanging out with a small posse of friends that include Clover, an Irish ex-pat; Alan, a sex-addled player; Victor, a reformed Goth; Erin, a scheming frenemy; and Monkeyboy, an underclassman who hides behind a curtain of hair. At times, the stories feel a little frenetic, but Clugston does a fine job of capturing this co-ed group’s dynamic, from the endless your-mama jokes to the earnest pop culture analysis. Too bad no one from Minx thought to commission a book from Clugston, as Blue Monday‘s frank, free-wheeling humor and girl-positive message would have been a welcome addition to their line.
7. JAPAN AI: A TALL GIRL’S ADVENTURES IN JAPAN
AIMEE MAJOR STEINBERGER • GO! COMI • 1 VOLUME
In ten charmingly illustrated chapters, animator and avid cosplayer Aimee Major Steinberger documents her 2007 trip to Japan, where she visited otaku hotspots from the manga shops of Akihabara to the back door of the Takarazuka Revue. Steinberger’s simple but evocative art does a beautiful job conveying both the essential strangeness of being a tall American woman in Japan and the sheer joy of being a fangirl in the otaku motherland. The only drawback to Japan-Ai is the packaging: the sparkling pink cover and bubbly font — presumably derived from Steinberger’s handwriting — may deter male readers from purchasing a book that looks suspiciously like a SnoBall. That’s a pity, because Steinberger’s narrative is funny and informative, filled with the kind of interesting digressions on kogal fashions, Takarazuka fan culture, and onsen etiquette that any budding Japanophile would find enlightening. (Originally reviewed at PopCultureShock on 12/19/07.)
ADAM WARREN • DARK HORSE • 6+ VOLUMES (ongoing)
Empowered is a unique crossover, a manga-influenced comic that parodies tights-and-capes conventions with raunchy gusto. Its heroine, Elissa Megan Powers, a.k.a. Empowered, is a superhero who struggles with self-esteem issues and social anxiety — two problems compounded by her utterly unreliable super-suit, which is prone to ripping and exposing her at inopportune moments. In less skillful hands, Empowered would be pure cheesecake, but Adam Warren manages the difficult trick of drawing a heroine whose costume failures do more than just titillate (if you’ll pardon the expression), they shed light on the objectification of female superheroes in mainstream American comics. Warren also has a ball satirizing manga, as Empowered’s best friend is a reformed villainess imaginatively named Ninjette. Rude, silly fun.
5. 12 DAYS
JUNE KIM • TOKYOPOP • 1 VOLUME
When Jackie’s ex-girlfriend Noah dies in a car accident, Jackie decides that the best strategy for coping with her grief is to consume Noah’s ashes in the form of a daily smoothie. Over the course of twelve days, Jackie punishes herself with this gruesome ritual while confronting painful memories of Noah and sparring with Noah’s brother Nick. Though the smoothie conceit is self-consciously literary — Jackie’s ash-drinking ritual has an analog in classical antiquity — June Kim’s book remains true to life, filled with lovely, quiet observations about the way we grieve, define family, express desire, and remember moments of hurt and betrayal. Kim dares to fill up pages with nothing more than realistically drawn close-ups of faces and hands, allowing us to experience the characters’ emptiness for ourselves. Some poor design choices on Tokyopop’s part — namely, a hideous font — mar, but don’t ruin, Kim’s carefully composed layouts. (Originally reviewed at PopCultureShock on 12/6/06.)
4. KING CITY
BRANDON GRAHAM • IMAGE COMICS/TOKYOPOP • 1+ VOLUME (first volume was reissued by Image Comics in shorter installments; series is ongoing)
King City was one of several titles stuck in limbo when Tokyopop restructured its global manga initiative, eventually finding a new home and a new (floppy) format at Image Comics. The larger trim size suits the material, giving Brandon Graham’s detailed cityscapes and characters a little more room to breathe. The story is an agreeable mess, chronicling the adventures of Joe, a twenty-something dude with a talent for picking locks and getting mixed up in dangerous (read: illegal) activities. Aiding him is Earthling J. J. Catterworth the Third, a cat capable of transforming into whatever tool Joe needs — a weapon, a periscope — and Joe’s geeky sidekick Pete. Though the story sometimes has a forced zaniness to it, Graham is an imaginative cartoonist capable of drawing anything from super-sexy Gothic girls to dinosaurs. His affection for manga is evident throughout the series, most notably in his use of evocative but silly sound effects, and in his fondness for extreme camera angles… just because.
NINA MATSUMOTO • DEL REY • 2 VOLUMES (suspended)
Nina Matsumoto made a splash back in 2007 with a manga-fied rendition of the entire Simpsons cast. What could have been a passing moment of Internet notoriety helped open doors for her, however, leading to an offer from Del Rey to pitch an original story. The result is Yokaiden, a supernatural adventure about a young boy whose knowledge of and trust in yokai is put to the test when a vengeful kappa steals his grandmother’s soul. Among the many pleasures of Matsumoto’s smartly paced series are the yokai themselves; her demons would be right at home in the Hokusai Manga or an eighteenth-century scroll painting. The script is a little tin-eared at times, but the humor and stylish artwork more than compensate for a few clunky passages.
2. NIGHTSCHOOL: THE WEIRN BOOKS
SVETLANA CHMAKOVA • YEN PRESS • 4 VOLUMES
At first glance, Nightschool looks the product of a teen focus group, a mash-up of Twilight, Harry Potter, and a dozen other fantasy series starring vampires and wizards. A closer look, however, reveals that Svetlana Chmakova has fashioned an engrossing supernatural mystery from elements of domestic drama, horror, and humor: an eye-of-newt solution comes with a “may contain peanuts” warning, a beleaguered headmaster finds an ingenious solution for including vampires in the high school yearbook. (They don’t show up on film.) Chmakova doesn’t skimp on the action, either, staging scenes of nocturnal combat with great aplomb. Perhaps most exciting thing about Nightschool is seeing the degree to which her storytelling has evolved since she burst on the scene in 2005; though Chmakova’s trademark style is immediately recognizable, the layouts are looser and more dynamic than Dramacon‘s, playing a more integral role in advancing the plot.
1. SCOTT PILGRIM
BRYAN LEE O’MALLEY • ONI PRESS • 6 VOLUMES
In case you’ve been living under a rock, here’s the deal with Scott Pilgrim: this goofy series documents the romantic misadventures of a twenty-three-year-old slacker who must defeat The League of Evil Ex-Boyfriends, a loose consortium of his new girlfriend’s previous lovers. Scott’s travails are an apt metaphor for the way most of us feel when we embark on a new relationship: we’d like to leave our baggage behind and make a fresh start of things, but it usually takes a whole lot of effort — and maybe some Mortal Kombat — to get there. Though the plot is fun and fast-paced, what really makes Scott Pilgrim work is the deft way Bryan Lee O’Malley pokes fun at hipster culture; everyone has something to knowingly laugh at, from classic video games to indie rock lyrics. (Originally reviewed at PopCultureShock on 11/14/07.)
GOTHIC SPORTS (By Anike Hage • Tokyopop • 3 volumes, ongoing): This German import focuses on Anya, a transfer student desperate to join one of her new school’s top-ranked sports teams. Her efforts are frustrated both by her lack of skill and the school’s limited opportunities for female athletes. Anya refuses to be sidelined, however, and forms a co-ed soccer team notable for its inclusiveness and its stylin’ uniforms. The pacing is a little slow, and the backgrounds aren’t nearly as well rendered as the characters — or their elaborate outfits, for that matter — but Gothic Sports serves up a good mix of drama, humor, and game play. (Originally reviewed at PopCultureShock on 9/26/07.)
HOLLOW FIELDS (By Madeline Rosca • Seven Seas • 3 volumes): Nine-year-old Lucy Snow is bound for the genteel halls of Saint Galbat’s Academy for Young Ladies, but bad directions from a stranger lead her instead to Hollow Fields, a.k.a. Miss Weaver’s Academy for the Scientifically Gifted and Ethically Unfettered. Though Lucy’s gut instinct is to flee, she enrolls at Miss Weaver’s school—after all, the tuition is free and her private room has its own bath. What Lucy discovers is that Miss Weaver has been culling the student body, sending the slackers to a detention center from which no one has returned. Looking at Madeline Rosca’s crisp character designs and steampunk setting, it’s easy to see why Hollow Fields nabbed an International Manga Award in 2007: her art is the real deal. The story’s brisk pace and macabre sense of humor are pluses, too. (Originally reviewed at PopCultureShock, 7/12/07).
MANGA SHAKESPEARE: OTHELLO (By Ryuta Osada • Self-Made Hero • 1 volume): I’ll be honest: I’ve been unimpressed with many of Self-Made Hero’s Manga Shakespeare volumes, both for the unpolished artwork and for the editorial handling of the Bard’s best-known speeches. Ryuta Osada’s adaptation of Othello is a notable exception, with strong, arresting visuals, and an anthropomorphic approach to character design that puts a fresh spin on the material. Enjoyable whether you’re tackling Othello for sophomore English or revisiting it for the fifth time.
RE:PLAY (By C. Lijewski • Tokyopop • 3 volumes): Drawing on a variety of musical and manga influences — Linkin Park, Naked Ape, and Tite Kubo among them — Christy Lijewski tells the story of a struggling band whose fortunes change when they meet a stranger busking on the streets. The catch: mystery man Iszak may not be human. The supernatural element sometimes feels as if it’s been grafted onto a more conventional rock-n-roll drama, but the crisp dialogue and unique artwork more than offset a few moments of dramatic weakness. (Click here for my review of volume three at Good Comics for Kids; click here for my 2008 interview with Lijewski at PopCultureShock.)
SORCERERS & SECRETARIES (By Amy Kim Ganter • Tokyopop • 2 volumes) This two-volume romance explores the relationship between mousy Nicole Hayes, an aspiring fantasy writer, and flirtatious Josh Kim, an aspiring ladies’ man. Like many series in Tokyopop’s OEL line, Sorcerers & Secretaries feels pat, as the obstacles in the couple’s way — she wants to write, he wants to take her on a date — are really nothing more than speed bumps. Ganter pulls off the difficult balancing act between respecting her characters’ motivations and recognizing the youthful naivete of their beliefs, however, preventing this sweet, sincere story from becoming sappy. (Originally reviewed at PopCultureShock on 6/7/07.)
TALKING TO STRANGERS (Stories by Fehed Said, Art by Chloe Citrine, Sonia Leong, Nana Li, Win Yun Man, and Faye Yong • Sweatdrop Studios • 1 volume): This six-story collection runs the gamut, subject- and style-wise, from horror to comedy, making it a good introduction to the writers and artists of British manga publisher Sweatdrop Studios. (Click here for my review at The Manga Critic.)