If you’ve ever worked a thankless retail job, you’ll appreciate Skull-Face Bookseller Honda-san, a semi-autobiographical look at the ups and downs of customer service. The titular character works in the manga section of a large Tokyo bookstore, helping buyers find the perfect series, doing inventory, and meeting with representatives from major publishers. Some of her adventures are genuinely amusing, as when a handsome male customer requests explicit doujinshi for his daughter, or an American fujoshi explains her penchant for a particular seme-uke dynamic; other chapters are more matter-of-fact, conveying the difficulties of keeping popular titles in stock, or documenting the social and professional interactions among the staff members. Though none of its is laugh-out-loud funny, the artwork is terrific, capturing Honda-san’s sweaty anxiety every time a customer or colleague makes an uncomfortable request of her—no mean feat, given that the artist has depicted herself with a skeleton head and androgynous, apron-clad body. (Her colleagues’ identities have been camouflaged in a similar fashion: one has a paper bag for a head, and another wears a gas mask.) Amanda Haley’s thoughtful translation complements Honda’s crisp illustrations, offering useful context for understanding the unique challenges of selling manga to the general public, and plenty of footnotes to decode the insider shop-talk.
Yet for all the craft with which Skull-Face Bookseller is written, I never fully succumbed to its charms. I found the pacing uneven and the publishing-focused chapters long-winded, especially when contrasted with the snappy staging of Honda-san’s encounter with the international BL brigade. I’m still curious about the series, but would put Skull-Face Bookseller in the same category as Saint Young Men: a comedy that’s better in principle than in practice. Your mileage may vary.
SKULL-FACE BOOKSELLER HONDA-SAN, VOL. 1 • STORY AND ART BY HONDA • TRANSLATION BY AMANDA HALEY • YEN PRESS • NO RATING • 166 pp.