If there’s one word to sum up the past year, it would be “stealth.” Despite the slowdown in manga’s growth, the restructuring at TokyoPop and Yen Press, lay-offs at Borders, and the persistent rumors of Kodansha’s entry into the market, 2008 was an incredible year for manga. This was the year that manga spread its wings. We saw more variety in content coming from traditional manga publishers like Del Rey, who gave us Me and the Devil Blues, a deeply researched, fictionalized history of blues guitarist Robert Johnson’s life and mythology. Meanwhile, Viz Media continued sneaking josei (manga for young women) into the market by packaging it in the unsuspecting shojo (girl’s manga) packaging. Honey & Clover, about art school students, and Sand Chronicles, a new kind of high school romance with an air of sophistication, introduced a different sort of soap opera: one that left high drama for the subtle layers of human needs and the dangers of proximity. While Viz has never shied away from josei (their flagship title for this genre is Nana) 2008 was the first year the largely teen manga publisher had so much output that appealed to a maturing audience.
Likewise, American arthouse comics publishers joined Vertical, Inc in reaching and cultivating a taste for manga within the indie/arthouse crowd. PictureBox introduced readers to Yuichi Yokoyama’s Travel, a rhythmic meditation on movement, while Drawn&Quarterly’s July release of Seiichi Hayashi’s Red Colored Elegy made this past summer a summer of heartbreak.
With the Viz’s commitment to older readers reiterated in their February launch of two of Naoki Urasawa’s mature series (20th Century Boys, and his joint venture with Tezuka Productions, PLUTO) and Top Shelf’s launch of the AX anthology, 2009, as lean and tough as it’s expected to be, might possibly be manga’s official entry—not into the book world or the teen world, but into the comics world. A year of legitimacy for a maturing market.
With that in mind, here are 10 titles from 2008 to get you ready for the coming year:
10. The Ice Wanderer by Jiro Taniguchi (Fanfare/Ponent Mon)
In his trademark precision drawings, Taniguchi depicts adventure in the American northern frontier, adapting the adventures of Jack London and the themes of The Call of the Wild. Ice Wanderer also includes a couple of sweet, romantic, short stories, one of which looks autobiographical.
9. Tokko: Devil’s Awaken by Tohru Fujisawa (Tokyopop)
Blood and gore adventure from the creator of GTO, Fujisawa’s story of a young man’s plan for vengeance (and a secret police task force that deals with the supernatural) is good, messy, and frightening, fun.
8. Disappearance Diary by Hideo Azuma (Fanfare/Ponent Mon)
Azuma chronicles his day-to-day activities after the life altering decision to leave his wife and child and abandon his job to run away from home. Living off of the half-smoked cigarette butts of strangers and digging through dumpsters for food, Azuma’s Diary almost functions as a how-to manual for living on the streets. Humorous and unblinking in its honesty, Disappearance Diary is a reminder of why none of us should ever abandon our families to live off of dumpster food. Although, it didn’t work on Azuma himself. After returning home from his foray on the streets, Azuma runs away from home a second time.
7. Two Will Come by Kyungok Kang (Netcomics)
Part suspense, part horror, all mystery, Kang weaves together a thrilling narrative of family deception and high school secrecy. In Jina’s family, one person from every generation will be murdered. In Jina’s generation, it will be her—and it will be done by someone she knows. Deft and masterful storytelling by one of the best creators to come from Korea, Kang’s craft is impeccable.
6. GANTZ by Hiroya Oku (Dark Horse)
Optimizing the feelings of isolation and alienation, Oku brings together a cast of strangers to live out an alternate death scenario hunting down aliens. A mix of blood, violence, and action of all sorts make this thorough entertainment for the 15-year-old boy in all of us.
5. Solanin by Inio Asano (Viz)
Easily mistaken for josei, Solanin originally appeared in a seinen manga (manga for young men) anthology. The narrative is nothing new—post-college 20-year-olds trying to figure out life—but infused with a sense of immediacy as they try to figure out how they’re going to stay solvent in high cost Tokyo. The outcome will surprise you.
4. Fairy Tail by Hiro Mashima (Del Rey)
An adventure series filled with slapstick humor and magic, Fairy Tail is funny and action packed for boys, but made to be enjoyed by just about anyone.
3. Red Colored Elegy by Seiichi Hayashi (Drawn & Quarterly)
Hayashi’s portrayal of young love against the backdrop of student demonstrations and political turbulence is rendered in stark ink drawings that paint sadness and hope during the young couples emotional ups and downs. A soft, kinetic energy plays through the entire book, reflecting the multiple directions the two protagonists wander in while Hayashi controls the energy to emote feelings of stillness, and silent longing.
2. We Were There by Yuki Obata (Viz)
Not your typical high school romance, although it looks it at the outset, We Were There captures the anxieties of first love and the devastation of first heart break in fine layers of delicately woven narrative. We Were There gets under your skin. And stays there.
1. Slam Dunk! by Takehiko Inoue (Viz)
Inoue’s series about high school thug Hanamichi Sakuragi’s struggle to learn and excel at basketball (a sport he hates) in order to win the affection of a female classmate captures the energy and lore of 1990’s NBA history. This isn’t Japan’s most beloved manga of all time for nothing.