Nominees for the Eisner Awards, the top honors in the comics industry, were announced on April 19. This year’s nomnees in the manga category (technically, “Best U.S. Edition of International Material—Asia”) offer a range of different types of manga, from genre comedy to poignant literary works. As a former Eisner judge myself, I know how hard the choices are, and this year’s slate is exceptionally good. All these series are accessible to non-manga readers as well as longtime fans. Let’s dive in and take a look!
Assassination Classroom, by Yusei Matsui
This was the surprise nominee, because it’s not exactly a highbrow series, though it is wickedly funny. The setup is totally over the top: a class of misfit high school students are assigned the job of killing their teacher, Koro-sensei, an octopus-shaped alien who has announced he will destroy the earth at the end of the school year. Armed with weapons that are harmless to humans but deadly to their teacher, they study his weaknesses and plot new attacks, and new assassins join the class as the series goes on. What makes it so fun (and so weird) is that Koro-sensei is actually a really good teacher, and he uses his superpowers to help his students as much as to evade their attacks. He’s quirky, overly fond of gossip, a bit self-indulgent, and he often finishes a face-off with an opponent by doing something silly like giving them a manicure. This is a series that shonen fans will particularly enjoy, as there are a lot of inside jokes about the conventions of the genre, but it’s also a fun action comedy for anyone willing to go all in on suspension of disbelief. There is a darker side to Koro-sensei, and occasionally he lets the jovial mask slip, adding a bit of edge. The judges nominated volumes 2-7 of this series for the award.
A Bride’s Story, Vol. 7, by Kaoru Mori
A Bride’s Story is a period piece about life on the Silk Road in Central Asia in the 19th century. The bride of the title is Amir, married at age 20 to 12-year-old Karluk and living with his tribe. The first few volumes deal with this couple as their relationship develops and Amir grows accustomed to life in her new home. Then the story goes off in a different direction, following the adventures of Henry Smith, an English researcher who is studying the area. Volume 7, the only published in 2015, stands on its own pretty well, focusing on a new character that Smith encounters: Anis, a woman who lives in a society where a woman cannot be seen by any male other than her husband. Anis loves her husband, but she is lonely—until she goes to the public baths and makes a special friend there. The story has a couple of twists, and the bathhouse setting means it features a lot of nudity. Mori is also the creator of another period manga, Emma, the story of a maid in Victorian England.
Master Keaton, by Naoki Urasawa, Hokusei Katsushika, and Takashi Nagasaki
This is a great manga for people who don’t usually read manga, and a real treat for those of us who do. Naoki Urasawa’s series 20th Century Boys won two Eisner Awards. Master Keaton is an earlier work, and it’s basically a collection of short mysteries revolving around the title character, Taichi Hiraga-Keaton, an archaeology professor who moonlights as an insurance investigator. Keaton is one of those comic-book heroes who is uncannily good at everything, a former SAS member trained in survival and combat skills with a McGyver-esque ability to use the materials at hand as weapons or escape aids. The stories are a bit choppy but a lot of fun, and Urasawa’s art style is clear and easy to follow. Volumes 2-4 are nominated for the Eisner.
Showa, 1953–1989: A History of Japan, by Shigeru Mizuki
Shigeru Mizuki wraps up his history of the Showa period with a fourth massive volume (the second and third won last year’s Eisner). Mizuki mixes historical events with his own personal experiences and “realistic” backgrounds with cartoony characters, making for a rich story that really brings the era to life.
A Silent Voice, by Yoshitoki Oima (Kodansha)
Technically a shonen romance, A Silent Voice breaks the bonds of genre with unusual characters and a refreshingly honest look at teenage life. Shoya is a thrill-seeking teenager; his cheerful but oblivious single mom doesn’t set many limits on him, but his friends start to back away when he gets too extreme. Shoko is the new girl in his class, and she’s deaf. Shoya is fascinated by this, and finds her an irresistible target for bullying; the rest of the class joins in, until she finally leaves the school. But that’s just the beginning of the story, because once Shoko is gone, Shoya finds himself the real target—the class has turned on him. Years later, he decides to apologize to Shoya and then commit suicide. But when he meets her, everything heads in a different direction, and he begins to rebuild his life and become a part of hers. With interesting characters, authentic emotions, and frank talk, this is one of the best graphic novels of the year in any category. The series started in 2015, so volumes 1-4 are eligible for the Eisner.
Sunny, by Taiyo Matsumoto (VIZ)
The title of Taiyo Matsumoto’s story of life in a Japanese foster home is taken not from a character but from a car, an abandoned taxicab where the children go to get away from it all and dream their dreams. The characters feel very real as they create their own little society within the home. Sunny is basically a collection of slice-of-life stories about the children, told with sadness and humor. Matsumoto lived in an orphanage as a child and based the stories on his own experiences; while this is fiction, the stories ring true. The fifth and final volume was published in 2015, and is eligible for the award.