So, today is Star Wars day. A day for geeks to embrace the Sci-Fi phenomenon. Probably should do a blog post about that.
Except that I won’t. Because as much of a geek as I am, I have never watched these movies. It’s something I’ve never been interested in, and don’t see that changing anytime soon. On top of which, today is also World Comic Book Day – something far more interesting to me.
Admittedly I don’t read a lot of comic books. Read a few Marvel Team Ups and Batman/Superman stories, and for a while I was into Transformers before I fell out of love with the franchise. I do get the monthly release of Batman Beyond as I’m a big fan of the TV series, and was giddy as all hell when they started doing the comic, but otherwise my interests lie East with manga. Been picking up graphic novels since I was 14, spending an absolute fortune and getting through easily 100+ series over the years.
Sadly, manga isn’t as big as it once was. Tokyopop, the main importer liquidated last year so an awful lot of titles vanished into the ether, never to be finished. Viz and Dark Horse are trying to pick up the slack, but even they’re being choosy with what comes out.
However, in honour of today, I thought I’d list my Top 10 favourite Manga series. Some aren’t finished, but tried to pick those that were so nobody falls into my tragedy of being left without an answer. I’m also not a huge Shonen Jump fan, so they’re should be some lesser known series for any fan to reconsider.
Please note, these are not what I consider the ‘perfect’ manga series – just the ones I particularly enjoyed, so no complaining that something didn’t show up. Also ignored any manga where I felt the anime was a better story – which is why the much beloved Fruit’s Basket and One Piece didn’t make the cut (love the manga, but the anime is far more entertaining, if incomplete).
Let’s start with one of the very first manga’s I’ve ever read, and as such holds a place in my heart that…it probably doesn’t deserve, but woe betide anyone who badmouths it to me.
The story starts with the Dragon Knights trying to bring back the head of the Dragon Tribes most feared enemy Nadil. However, the knights include Rath – a demon-hunting junkie who is easily distracted, Thatz – a former thief who can’t quite resist a possibly gold payoff, and Rune – the only capable one in the bunch who sadly looks very feminine and is incapable of controlling his two colleagues.
Sounds humorous…except that’s just the first few volumes. By the time the 3 of them get home, a story best described as plot twistingly epic begins. What started out as a funny light-hearted manga quickly introduced a slew of characters, multiple plots, several deaths of popular characters and an underlying storyline that even after god knows how many read throughs, I’m still picking up things I missed the previous times round. Everything the author puts into this thing is important – there is not one throwaway line or item introduced, they all show up again.
As with a lot of manga, the sheer evolution of artwork is more than slightly obvious. Do not be fooled by the covers, the story artwork is beautiful – although I felt by the time they got to the last arc, it was more beauty over substance. A lot of characters start to look alike, having lost a lot of originality from the earlier volumes. Doesn’t help that characters constantly change haircuts and outfit’s – realistic, but when you have trouble telling faces apart as is, can get troubling when you’ve got a 20+ cast running around.
It took 17 years and 26 volumes to complete, so it was a labour of love to stay with it till the end. Too few people have actually heard of it though, so if you’re into proper fantasy with dragons, magic, humour, brilliant characters and a fantastic plot, give it a look.
I said that few people have heard of Dragon Knights, but it’s practically a bestseller compared to this little gem. In my entire social circle, only one other person has heard of this series – and they’re the one that got me into it in the first place! I even did a cosplay only to have nobody recognise me. The burden of loving obscure media…
Set in the Wild West, Ming Chao is a young Chinese girl who dreams of becoming a star in Hollywood (and yes, the author openly admits that Hollywood didn’t exist back then, but to suspend disbelief – no arguments here). She sets off into the wild yonder armed only with the weapon inherited from her grandfather, the mysterious Eto Gun. A gun that can’t take normal bullets – but instead, uses the essence of animals (cow dung, snake skin, rabbit’s foot etc) from the Chinese zodiac to create magical bullets.
This series starts off slow, but when the plot gets going it doesn’t stop. The artwork is raw and not particularly flashy, but gives it a unique feel and sets it apart from a lot of other series. The setting itself is not something you find in a lot of other mangas (historical America as a whole is not Japan’s forte), and the characters are all brilliant. You have Ming Chao – whose bright eyed optimism and general outlook manages to be endearing without being annoying (not the easiest thing to do in manga), Baskerville – a travelling priest who is clearly not what he seems (and boy does his back-story not hold back on the punches), Benkate – a maniacal gun collecting female who has a past with Baskerville and desires the Eto Gun for herself, Fino and Yaghi – two native Americans…who I can’t say too much about without ruining later plot, but they are pretty damn awesome. Fino could probably have been the main character of this had the author taken it in a different route.
Like a lot of adventure manga’s, the story starts off light, but gets dark, dealing with drugs, murder, betrayal and racism that’s not too out of place for the setting. It is a good chunk fantasy, with some pretty crazy situations, but the final twists do not disappoint, and the manga concludes at 9 volumes with a bittersweet but satisfying ending. It’s nothing short of a travesty more people don’t know about this series.
Let’s leave the obscure and got for what’s probably one of the classics. Japan goes crazy for yaoi or boys love stories, and this is definitely one of the better known. I think it did as well as it did overseas mostly cause A) it has the main characters relationship develop at a very slow and natural pace, unlike a lot of manga’s in this genre, and B) is about 2 detectives in New York City developing feelings for each other – it was basically the fanfic equivalent of every cop TV show on air at the time!
FAKE is about 2 New York detectives, Dee Laytner and Randy ‘Ryo’ Maclean who are partnered together when Ryo is transferred to the precinct. Over the 7 volumes, the two of them solves a variety of murder cases while also developing feelings for each other. Dee, an open bisexual with a lenient view on the rules and ethics of his job spends a good chunk of the series pursuing the far more by the book Ryo, who struggles with the fact that he is developing feelings for another man.
There’s also Bicky, a young boy Ryo adopts in the first volume, and his friend-stroke-future-girlfriend Carol who get their own side stories while also hindering/helping the main duo with their relationship (FYI, Bicky is strongly against is as Ryo can clearly do better than Dee, while Carol is a full on shipper).
FAKE is great because although it is a romance, it’s also a crime series, and a pretty good one at that. On top of which, nothing blatantly (yet still pretty censored due to the rules of what could be shown at the time) sexual happens until the final volume, meaning even the not-a-fan-of-boys-love members of my social circle where able to enjoy the first 6 quite happily.
Pet Shop of Horrors
One of the first series I managed to stay with until completion. At least, completion of the first set. Its sequel was licensed by Tokyopop, meaning everyone in the west is probably never going to know what happened in the end.
Not to be mistaken for Little Shop of Horrors, PSOH is about a Pet Shop in China Town run by the mysterious Count D. Most of the pets are normal dogs and cats, but every now and then a client comes in for something…special. Count D is happy to supply, but also insists upon a contract listing 3 rules. If the owner doesn’t abide by those rules, then their fate is out of his hands.
Needless to say, people often have trouble sticking to these 3 simple rules, and in comes Leon, a detective determined to find out the shop’s dark secret. And despite everything he sees, it’s a lot easier to believe D is running a whorehouse and drugs lab than believing animals can look human and mythical animals are hiding in the Count’s back room.
Listed as a horror series, I love this manga because of the relationship between the 2 main characters. The two of them become something of ‘frenemies’ along the way, and it’s clear that although Leon knows the count is shady, he actually trusts him a lot more than he wants to admit. While D considers Leon to be the definition of everything he hates about humans, genuinely starts to care about him.
The plot of this is not as tight as the previous titles on the list. It’s essentially a collection of one shots every volume – with very little underlying plot tied together. However, Leon and D bickering never gets old, and the short stories of each chapter are usually very good. Some are better than others, and the Aesop’s can be a little warped, but its well worth a look. Also, the artwork? Gorgeous. I mean, just LOOK at the detail on this one character:
The series ended at 10 volumes, and was popular enough overseas that the sequel manga ‘Pet Shop of Horrors: Tokyo’ (or Shin Pet Shop of Horrors in Japan) was imported too. Wasn’t quite as good as it’s predecessor due to the lack of a certain character, but the stories were usually worth reading.
Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service
One of the few series still ongoing that I’m still reading. Definitely not for the squeamish, KCDS is graphic, gory, bit of an ethical minefield and often a little bit sickening…while also being heart-warming and funny.
The series is about a collection of graduates from a Buddhist university who all have unique skills…that can’t really be marketed in a typical way. Karatsu is an Itako (a psychic who speaks to the dead, as well as temporarily animating them on the odd occasion), Numata is a Dowser (who uses his pendant to find dead bodies), Makino is an embalmer (which in a country that prefers cremation is not a crowded career option), Yata is a channeller (speaks to an alien life form living in a sock puppet. Yes, really) and Ao is a hacker and mastermind money-maker of the group – and the only one who could probably make a living after university yet chooses to stay with the group for reasons I still don’t know. Anyway, the five of them discover that their skills make them very marketable to a certain type of client. Specifically the dead.
Basically, Numata finds a corpse, Karatsu talks to it, and rest of them take it from there. Either taking the body to its desired resting place, helping hunt down its killer, or fulfilling any unfinished business. In exchange, the dead proffer up whatever valuables they might have left behind as their fee. Sadly for the group, this often isn’t the money-making goldmine they hoped it would be, and end up doing a slew of odd jobs to pay the rent.
Again, the characters make this manga – and their back stories are released in trickles. Needless to say, anyone who would choose to be in their choice of employment didn’t have a happy childhood, and the stories themselves are about people who have died – it’s sad and horrifying all at the same time.
Sometimes the series lets itself down. Certain stories choose to go from graphically unnerving to just plain horrific. One story in the middle volumes I genuinely can’t read due to the images, but on the whole, it’s a solid and unique manga that I keep on my bookshelf. Currently at 12 volumes, and hopefully Dark Horse won’t drop it any time soon.
A blast from the past. Remember what I said about not including manga that had a better medium? Well although the manga is an adaptation of a book, which also had a movie, I stand by the belief that the manga is by far the best telling of this story available.
Based on one of the most well known novels to come out of Japan, Battle Royale is set in an alternate reality future, where Japan’s biggest hit reality show is ‘The Program’. Where a class of high school students are selected by lottery and taken somewhere isolated. Here, they are given a weapon and issued one command. Kill or be killed – because only one of them can leave alive.
What makes the manga the best version of this story is the fact that it gets 15 volumes to tell it. When you’ve got 42 characters and a premise where only one of them can survive, you’ve basically got to start killing them off right from the get go. The book tries, but at the end of the day some of the teenagers got about a page dedicated to them until they were executed, making it hard to care. The movie was even worse – for several characters, the only shots they got were of their already dead bodies and a tannoy stating they had died.
The manga on the other hand, is able to devote at least a chapter to every character. So when even the most throwaway person in the class dies, you genuinely feel like you got to know them. Hopes, dreams, friendships…which make their deaths tragic in a way that the book and movie just don’t have the time to give you. This means that the few characters the book focuses on are given even more depth, and their fates become even more gripping. I had to stop reading mid way through this series when one of the ‘main’ characters in the book and movie died in the manga, because it was like hearing an actual friend had died. Even going in knowing he was going to die (read the book and watched the movie first), the actual scene where it happens hit me hard.
It does of course have faults. The reality TV show aspect doesn’t necessarily work and certain plot twists/deaths are changed, and not for the better. It also suffers from the usual horror manga fallback of turning humans into water balloons. Guts and gore and blood seem to burst from people with regularity. It actually comes off as stupid rather than gory a lot of the time because it’s so overblown. However, the rest of the artwork is great – when you have 42 characters and manage to make them all look unique, that’s a huge plus in my book.
Pretty sure this is the only manga on the series that isn’t actually a manga…on the grounds that it wasn’t written in Japan. It’s actually European, and one of the better down English ‘mangas’ out there (essentially, graphic novels drawn in what is considered eastern style rather than western).
Only 3 volumes long, Dramacon focuses on Christie Leroux, a teenager attending her very first anime convention – who writes her own comics along with her artist boyfriend (and in later volumes, friend Bethany). While attending the con, and doing all the things con-goers do, she meets (and inevitably falls in love with) Matt, a cosplayer who embodies the brooding bad boy stereotype teenage girls love.
Each volume takes place a year apart, but at the same convention. The plot isn’t particularly original, but what gets it onto this list is that the author has conventions down pat. She herself was a convention goer so knows exactly what they’re like. Putting it down in a manga is brilliant, and because of this, I think the manga appeals to me the same way Mills and Boon do to some women. It’s cheap romance fantasy – meet the handsome cosplayer at the convention and fall in love – guilty pleasure for the geek.
Tokyo Mew Mew
Was in two minds about putting this in here, but if I was going to do a list of favourite mangas, there was no way I couldn’t have at least one magical girl manga on it somewhere. And I think Tokyo Mew Mew is by far one of the better mangas.
TMM stars Ichigo, a young girl who one day finds herself infused with the DNA of the iriomote cat and with it, the ability to turn into a magical cat girl. Why is this? Because the world is under attack from a species of alien who is taking animals and turning them into monsters – the DNA transformation gives her the power to fight and protect the earth. Along the way she discovers other girls also infused with the DNA of endangered animals (Mint, Lettuce, Pudding and Zakaro), and gains a mysterious protector known only as the Blue Knight. While in her real life, she struggles with the new cat instincts, the annoying habit of changing into an actual cat, and balancing her world-saving duties along with school and pursuing her crush.
Why is this my favourite magical girl series? Well, for one thing it’s short. At seven volumes it manages to tell a story that is both sweet, funny and moving – although admittedly doesn’t really offer anything unique. The characters have strong personalities, the art is cutesy and pretty, and some of the final plot twists do actually catch you by surprise.
This is an old series these days, but I still rank it as one of the best – read this rather than watch the anime. The anime doesn’t tell the story any better, just takes longer to get there.
By far the most well known manga on the list, and one I adored start to finish. Death Note is about a highly intelligent teenager called Light who one day discovers a notebook lying on the street. Inside is a set of rules, essentially stating that any person whose name is written in this notebook will die. Light, being a curious guy, tries it out when he spots a criminal on TV in a hostage situation. When the man dies, Light realises the power he now possesses, and begins to use it to wipe out criminals. Along the way, he meets Ryuk, the Shinigami (death god) to whom the book originally belonged – who admits he dropped it because he was bored and wanted to see what happened if a human obtained it – warning that if Light ever stops entertaining him, he’ll write Light’s name down himself.
Soon, people start to notice what’s happening, and the myth of ‘Kira’ – who many consider a God – appears, and draws the interest of both the police force and the greatest detective in the world, L – who is just as intelligent as Light and determined to bring Kira to justice. So begins a battle of the minds – L to discover Kira’s identity and bring him in, and Light trying to discover L’s real name and take his only real threat out of the picture.
This manga is different from every other one on the list just due to the sheer intelligence of the plot. Both of the main characters and geniuses in their own right, and the amount of plans and back up ideas and loopholes the two of them dance through in order to throw the other off track or trap is a work of art. The chapters are great at making the reader understand just how much is at stake, and does make you question your own ethics. Light starts off genuinely trying to make the work a better place, but t the end of the day, motives aside, he’s a serial killer with delusions of godhood who has no qualms with killing innocent people if he considers them a threat to him and the perfect crimeless future he envisions.
My one vice about the series is how it portrays women. Most of the characters are male, and the few female characters come across as weak, submissive and generally easy to manipulate – which in a series with very strong minded male casting, is pretty disappointing, but not enough to turn me off.
An anime and live action films exist for this series, but I really don’t think either caught the genius of the manga. Thirteen volumes and not one word was unnecessary. Most manga fans have read it by this point, but if anyone wanted a recommendation if they’d never read one before, this is it.
Full Moon O Sagashite
Finally, a series I haven’t read in forever, but when I was looking up the list of manga’s to write about, jumped out at me and made me want to read it again.
Full Moon is about a 12 year old girl called Mitsuki who dreams of being a singer. However, she has throat cancer which could be operated on, but at the cost of her vocal cords. One day, she comes across two shinigami who accidentally reveal to her she only has one year left to live, and becomes desperate to fulfil her dream before then. The male shinigami agrees to help her – if she agrees to go quietly once her year is up. She agrees, and he gives her the ability to transform into a healthy 16 year old so she can audition at a record company. She’s signed up, and picks the stage name ‘Full Moon’.
This series does have a couple of things that are a little unnerving for western readers (yet are really popular in Japan – at least in the manga’s I seem to read) including a pretty severe age gap between the main romantic couple. But on the whole it’s a simple story with strong themes – suicide, life and death, the process of grieving, difference between fantasy and reality and falling in love. The manga is seven volumes, and the story doesn’t need any more. Despite the rather dark themes, it does have a happy ending too, which after the emotional wringer it’s put you through, you are very, very grateful for.
And that’s my ten favourites – and I kind of weep for the titles that didn’t make the cut (Gimmick, Junjou Romantica, Fushigi Yuugi to name a few). Though I do find it ironic that out of the ten, only one of the series is one I still own. Sadly, manga take up so much space that actually keeping everything I’ve posted would probably take up an entire bookshelf when all I have space for is one shelf. One day when I’ve got a kindle, I can try and get them all back in digital form.