After a two-year hiatus from blogging, I donned my critic’s cap again in 2015. I’ve enjoyed writing my quasi-weekly column, but composing a year-end list reminded me why I stepped off the reviewing treadmill in 2012: mediocre books! This year yielded a veritable bumper crop of so-so manga, titles that were competently executed but otherwise unmemorable thanks to an abundance of generic characters, cliché settings, and predictable plot twists; you’d be forgiven for feeling that you’d read many of 2015’s debuts before, even if the artists were new to the US market.
Lurking among the paint-by-number romances and boy-saves-world titles, however, were a few gems. I’ve done my best to highlight the titles that made me feel something, whether that feeling was love, hate, or a mixture of both. To that end, I’ve included my nominees for the worst manga of 2015 alongside the books that made me laugh and cry.
Best New Series: Yowamushi Pedal
By Wataru Watanabe • Yen Press
You know the rap on sports manga: American readers won’t buy it, and don’t like it. Yowamushi Pedal might just change that, however, thanks to a story that plays well across the nerd-jock divide. Onoda, the hero, is a self-professed otaku whose weekly bike rides into Akihabara have transformed him into a secret Lance Armstrong clone. Though Onoda wants to revive his school’s anime club, his amazing hill-climbing skills and stamina get noticed by more seasoned riders, all of whom convince Onoda to join the cycling team. The series’ races are nail-biting, page-turning affairs, but it’s the in-between stuff that makes Yowamushi Pedal work. Onoda doesn’t just discover a new skill; he discovers a community of people who share his passion for riding and respect his talent. In short, Yowamushi Pedal is a coming-of-age story in which a bike becomes the nerdy hero’s vehicle—pun intended—for self-actualization.
Best New Shonen Series: One-Punch Man
By ONE and Yusuke Murata • VIZ Media
One-Punch Man is the ultimate have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too manga. On the surface, it’s an affectionate spoof of shonen clichés that pokes fun at goofy costumes, over-the-top training sessions, and speech-prone villains. On a deeper level, however, One-Punch Man is a great adventure series about an ordinary but strong-willed individual who sets out to rid his city of monsters, only to discover that there’s a much greater threat to mankind than the lobster-men and were-lions that roam the streets. The result is a sincere, gut-bustingly funny manga that reads like a Silver Age superhero comic, splats and all.
Best New Romance Manga: Horimiya
By Hero and Daisuke Hagiwara • Yen Press
Horimiya is one of 2015’s most pleasant surprises, a teen rom-com that avoids cliché situations by focusing on the characters’ lives outside school. At first glance, its lead characters look like opposites: Kyouko is the class queen, while Izumi is a quiet loner. When they bump into each other off campus, however, they quickly realize they have more in common than their carefully constructed identities would suggest–a realization that leads to friendship and flirtation. In less imaginative hands, Kyouko and Izumi’s budding romance would be subjected to endless tests–school plays, beach trips, hot transfer students–but the authors resist the urge to trot out these over-used scenarios, relying instead on more ordinary settings for comedic (and dramatic) grist. It’s the perfect antidote to the wacky misunderstandings that drive the plots of Cactus’ Secret, Special A, and a dozen similar titles.
Best New Gag Manga: Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu
By Junji Ito • Kodansha Comics
Draw a Venn diagram that shows the overlap between Junji Ito fans and cat lovers, and you’ve found the small but perfect audience for Junji Ito’s Cat Diary, a collection of anecdotes about Ito’s beloved pets Yon and Mu. Though the manga’s jokes explore familiar terrain, Ito’s exaggerated reaction shots are priceless, capturing the mixture of love and disgust that cats inspire in their owners. (Imagine Edvard Munch drawing a gag manga about cats, and you get the general idea.) Ito is refreshingly honest about the way animals change the dynamic between people, too; in some of the manga’s most memorable scenes, Ito and his fiancée compete fiercely for their cats’ affection, plying Yon and Mu with toys, treats, and cuddles. Though the prevailing tone is campy, Ito’s obvious affection for his cats helps prevents the Diary from becoming too arch.
Best Historic Title: Ludwig B.
By Osamu Tezuka • DMP, Inc.
Left unfinished at the time of Osamu Tezuka’s death, Ludwig B. is a fictionalized biography of Beethoven. Tezuka only completed two volumes, but oh, those two volumes! Tezuka draws evocative scenes of Beethoven at the keyboard, using striking visual metaphors to convey the sound of Beethoven’s music. Tezuka also does a good job of capturing the dynamic between Beethoven and his father, revealing the extent to which Johann’s drinking, gambling, and stage-parenting cast a long shadow over Beethoven’s adult life. Purists should note that Tezuka takes frequent liberties with the historical record, creating a mustache-twirling villain named Franz Kreuzstein to serve as a foil for the young, determined Beethoven. If you’re not offended by such creative license, however, Ludwig B. offers an interesting glimpse into Beethoven’s development as a composer, and Tezuka’s lifelong fascination with Beethoven.
Best Reprint Edition: Planetes
By Makoto Yukimura • Dark Horse
Listen up, manga publishers: if you’re going to do a new edition of a fan favorite, Dark Horse’s two-volume omnibus of Planetes is a swell example of how to do it right. The story has a crisp new translation, full-color pages, and a bigger trim size that gives Makoto Yukimura’s artwork room to stretch out. Better still, the new edition collects more chapters in each volume, allowing newcomers to read far enough into Planetes for Yukimura’s episodic character studies to gel into a more coherent story about space travel and social inequality; by the time newbies reach the end of volume one, they’ll be hooked, too.
Best Manga I Thought I’d Hate: Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto
By Nami Sano • Seven Seas
In theory, Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto is a one-note samba: the titular character is handsome, good at everything, and unfailingly logical in all situations. In practice, however, Haven’t You Heard? is the Goldberg Variations of gag manga, taking stock scenes and putting a bizarre twist on them. The secret? Sakamoto is just a little too perfect, behaving more like a well-programmed android than a flesh-and-blood person. His peculiar brand of sangfroid confounds enemies and admirers alike; no one can decide if he’s cool or crazy, or where his loyalties might lie, making it impossible to predict how he’ll respond to each new challenge.
Worst Manga I Thought I’d Love: JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Part 1: Phantom Blood
By Hirohito Araki • VIZ Media
At the risk of becoming the Armond White of manga critics, I’m nominating Hirohito Araki’s bone-crunching, chest-thumping saga for Most Exhausting New Series of 2015. That’s because Phantom Blood is a prime example of all-caps theater, the sort of manga in which every word balloon is filled with emphatic punctuation, and every plot twist seems like the brainchild of six teenage boys hopped up on Mountain Dew. In small doses, this more-is-more approach to storytelling can be amusing, but in longer installments, the cumulative effect of so much narrative excess is numb resignation; I didn’t feel entertained so much as punched in the face. (Reviewed at Manga Blog on 5/22/15.)
Most Disappointing Manga: Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler
By Shigeru Mizuki • Drawn & Quarterly
Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler is one of the artist’s lesser works, uncomfortably see-sawing between character study and history lesson in its efforts to show us the man behind the Third Reich. Mizuki’s signature blend of cartoonish figures and photo-realistic backgrounds have been deployed to powerful effect in Non Non Ba and Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths. Here, however, Shigeru’s hybrid style is a poor match with the subject; seeing Hitler reduced to a crude caricature makes it all too easy to view the book as a curiosity, rather than a serious meditation on evil. The virtual absence of the Holocaust is an even greater shortcoming; Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler never grapples with the Fuhrer’s most disturbing legacy save for one blurry image of stacked corpses. Perhaps Mizuki felt the subject was too complex to explore in this biography, but it’s hard to imagine any dramatization of the Fuhrer’s life that fails to examine his virulent anti-Semitism.
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So what are other folks saying about 2015’s best titles? My Manga Bookshelf colleagues just posted their Pick of the Year, with Ash Brown posting a separate, more detailed run-down of his favorite titles at Experiments in Manga. At the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, Brigid Alverson has posted separate lists for her favorite new and continuing series.
This article originally appeared at MangaBlog on December 30, 2015.