We’ve already pored over the Eisner nominees for new series and graphic novels; now, let’s take a look at the contenders for the year’s top honors in manga.
Choosing the nominees for the Eisners is a tough gig. I know from experience—I was an Eisner judge myself a couple of years ago, and saw firsthand how hard the choices are. Books that seemed like no-brainers when I was on the plane to San Diego didn’t seem like slam dunks after three days of intense reading and discussion, and the universe of great comics is much larger can be squeezed into the categories available.
That said, this year’s slate of manga nominees (the official category title is “Best U.S. Edition of International Material—Asia”) is a pretty good one, with a few familiar faces and a few surprises. You can’t go wrong with any of them, but because I can never resist a bit of armchair quarterbacking, I have added a few more titles I think would have been right at home on the shortlist.
First, the nominees.
All You Need Is Kill, by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Ryosuke Takeuchi, Takeshi Obata, and yoshitoshi ABe
The premise of All You Need Is Kill is like Groundhog Day, if Groundhog Day were incredibly violent: a soldier keeps dying on the battlefield and then waking up alive again on the morning before the battle. This is no ordinary war. Humanity is locked in a struggle for survival with strange, nigh-unkillable alien beings called the Mimics. Keiji, a raw recruit in high-tech battle armor, is killed by a Mimic on his first foray, but as he lies dying, Rita Vrataski, an American soldier renowned for her skill with the double-edge battle ax, comes to his side and keeps him company. And then it’s yesterday morning again. Caught in a loop that inevitably ends with his own excruciating death, Keiji decides to train himself to use what he learns each day to live a bit longer each time he reboots, and eventually defeat the Mimics. The manga is based on a novel that was made into a film, Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow; if you just can’t get enough of this story, there is also an American-style graphic novel adaptation. Takeshi Obata, the artist for Death Note and Bakuman, has done a superb adaptation; the subject matter is a perfect fit with his signature style.
In Clothes Called Fat, by Moyoco Anno
Noko is overweight, which the office ladies at her dreary corporate job tease her about endlessly, but she also has a satisfying relationship with a handsome man who doesn’t seem to care about her size. That’s absolutely unacceptable to her slim, beautiful co-worker Mayumi, who bullies Noko, first with subtle digs and then by sleeping with her boyfriend and sharing all the dirty details. That’s just the launching pad for this complex story, which goes far beyond a standard morality tale about weight and self control.Moyoco Anno has a sharp eye and a searing pen, and nobody escapes from this story unscathed, least of all Noko, whose problems stem from her own weakness and the attitudes of people around her, despite the tendency for all the characters to view them through the lens of body type.
Master Keaton, Vol. 1, by Naoki Urasawa, Hokusei Katsushika, & Takashi Nagasaki
This is a fairly early series by Urasawa, a master of modern manga who would go on to create Monster, Pluto, and 20th Century Boys (which won two Eisners). Master Keaton feels like an early work—the storytelling is a bit rough—but all the ingredients that make Urasawa’s later stories so great are already in place, including intriguing characters, clever twists, and an expressive drawing style. The lead character is Taichi Hiraga-Keaton, a Japanese-English anthropologist moonlighting as an investigator for Lloyds of London. His side job gives him the perfect pretext to investigate murders all over the world, and his background in British Special Ops gives the series a McGyverish feel. Of all the manga nominees, this is probably the best choice for non-manga readers, as it’s basically a series of short mystery stories—easy to dip in and out of—and Urasawa’s art is not particularly stylized.
One-Punch Man, by One & Yusuke Murata
This is an unlikely success story: the creator, who simply calls himself “One,” started One-Punch Man as a webcomic on his own site. It went viral and was picked up by Young Jump Web Comics, and later by the North American version of Shonen Jump. Along the way, veteran manga artist Yusuke Murata jumped on board, and he handles most of the art now, creating lovingly detailed villains for One-Punch Man to punch (though the title character is drawn in a simple style with a bald, egg-shaped head). The concept is a simple one: One Punch Man is so powerful, he can defeat any enemy with a single punch, so he’s bored and looking for action. This being a Shonen Jump comic, action tends to find him. This series has only been released digitally—there is no print edition (yet)—which I’m pretty sure is a first for this Eisner category.
Showa 1939–1944 and Showa 1944–1953: A History of Japan, by Shigeru Mizuki
A bit of a tough read at first, but incredibly rewarding. Mizuki alternates chapters about Japanese history, drawn in a realistic style that is probably heavily photo referenced, with episodes from his own life. The juxtaposition of cartoon-like characters with realistic scenes can be jarring—there’s a goofy looking narrator, Rat Man, doing the voiceovers, and the autobiographical segments are drawn in a cartoony style even when the material is serious—but once you get used to it, this is a fascinating manga, mixing the broad sweep of politics and war with the lived experiences of one man.
Wolf Children: Ame & Yuki, by Mamoru Hosada & Yu
Hana, an almost preposterously charming college student, meets a dark stranger and falls in love with him, unfazed by the revelation that he is part wolf. They have two children, and everything looks great until wolf guy (who doesn’t seem to have a name) is shot while hunting in his animal form. That leaves Hana the single mom of two part-wolf kids, kids with an unnerving habit of changing from one form to the other at the worst moments. She moves to the country and makes a life for her family out of pure cheerfulness (hey, this is anime!) with some help from the neighbors. The heart of the book is the struggle her two children go through as they navigate living in human society and confront their differences. The story is adapted from an animated film, and it has some of the pacing of a movie—it starts slow, gets you acquainted with the characters, and builds to a dramatic climax. The art is simple and straightforward, and the book is a beautifully produced hardcover. Complete in one volume, Wolf Children: Ame & Yuki is a satisfying, sentimental read.
Those are the worthy nominees. But what would I add to that list? Here are three manga that I think merited a nomination.
Nijigahara Holograph, by Inio Asano
This haunting book about good and evil—mostly evil—in a small town is told in a spiral structure, with two different timelines. Adults are haunted by a terrible crime from the past, while the children tell stories of a beast that lives in the tunnel behind their school, whose coming foretells the end of the world. Asano is skilled at creating a sense of the horror lurking below the veneer of everyday life, using a recurring motif of swarms of butterflies as an unnerving reminder that all is not well. This is a layered story that makes more sense the second time through, but with Asano’s beautiful art and keen sense of the uncanny, it’s well worth reading more than once.
Vinland Saga, by Makoto Yukimura
In Vinland Saga, on the other hand, there is no veneer: Vikings are not known for subtlety, and the violence is right up front in this tale of the Danish conquest of England. There’s a lot more to the story than that, though: Yukimura’s cast includes a noble warrior, a wily leader, a hotheaded young man bent on revenge, and a reluctant prince, and he takes them on adventures that include not just battles, but plots, counterplots, and occasional philosophical digressions. It’s an action tale with depth and enough literary quality to make you feel not too bad about disappearing into its double-sized volumes for hours at a time.
What Did You Eat Yesterday? by Fumi Yoshinaga
Never has the mingling of food and emotion been as clear as in this tale of a gay couple and their dinners. Handsome, reserved Shiro enjoys fixing home-cooked meals, and his partner, the more relaxed Kenji, enjoys eating them. Shiro is a handsome, somewhat uptight lawyer, Kenji is a laid-back hairdresser, and their differing attitudes and backgrounds are part of what makes this story so compelling. Yoshinaga follows Shiro as he shops and cooks, commenting on the ingredients and preparation techniques with a sort of voice-over effect, and then shows us the meal being served, sometimes to only Kenji, sometimes to friends. It’s a quiet domestic drama filled with fascinating details and perceptive storytelling.
What recent manga do you think merit an award?