Of course I purchased manga while I was over in Japan. No tankôbon though — who wants to be saddled with a pile of comics they can't read? No, I purchased a small pile of phone book anthologies — what better way to get a taste of what the Japanese are reading, without committing yourself to an expensive purchase?
Let me tell you, manga phone books are a sweet deal. On average, they retail for about 240 yen ($2.20 US), which gets you between 460 and 500 pages of comics in a variety of genres and art styles. Plus, you can get them anywhere — I didn't see any vending machines, but there were tons of comics in every convenience store, train station kiosk, and bookstore, and there was always a crowd of high school students clustered around the stands.
For the next few days I'll be doing some cursory reviews of the phone books I picked up in Japan. First up is Weekly Shonen Sunday.
The first thing you'll notice when opening the book is a detachable postcard featuring some guy in gay biker bondage gear, proclaiming "I am Layzer Ramon HG! Poooooooh!!!!!!!!" There are multiple images of him on the card, and each one has a small gold foil area tastefully centered over his man bits. Thankfully, they're not scratch-offs. Apparently he's some sort of comedian with a gay gimmick, and the HG stands for "hard gay." What little I've found Googling his name convinces me that I don't want to know more.
Mitsuru Adachi's Crossgame is this issue's cover feature, and there's an extra-large 26 page installment inside as well. From the looks of it, it's more high school baseball hijinks in the spirit of Touch, though it's hard to tell exactly what's going on here. I understand the appeal of Adachi's stories, and I admire the stripped-down simplicity of his aesthetic, but I'm always turned off by his character designs. Everyone looks like a pug-faced little troll with enormous ears. I find it very off-putting.
I'm not entirely sure what the next story is, but judging from the number of weird puppet people and characters with books full of arcane gibberish I'm going to guess that it's an installment of Zatch Bell (or Gash Bell if you prefer). I'm not sure at all what's going on here — it's a fight scene of some sort — but it does feature a giant pirate skeleton robot with an exposed brain firing a goose and a garland of flowers out of its crotch. Now I really have seen everything. Why can't we see that in Ultimate Spider-Man? The kids would love it.
Next up is an installment of Detective Conan (Case Closed here in America). This one's apparently about a murder at a wedding reception, where some misleading evidence has been captured on a video camera, but it's impossible to follow without a translation. Conan is another series where the art grates on me — it's certainy competent, but staring at page after page of it only highights its obvious flaws. I do have to admire the way the artist conveys expressions on the male characters' faces, though.
I can't say I've ever heard of M.A.R. (Märchen Awakens Romance) before, and there's nothing here that would convince me to come back for more. The art's certainly appealing enough, with some well-drawn and nicely choreographed fighting, but it looks like another one of those interminable fight-of-the-week comics that bore me to tears.
I'm guessing that Hayate the Combat Butler has to spend the night in a haunted house for some reason. As intriguing as I find the idea of a combat butler ("The master has asked me to escort you to an ass-kicking."), I have to say this is another comic that just seems to be filling up space.
The best comic in this issue is Aoizaka High School Baseball Club. It's got an appealing style which nicely treads the line between realistic and cartoonish, spare and detailed, and the storytelling is amazing. After only one or two passes I was able to follow the baseball action. It seems the team's wound up with bases loaded with the opposing team's cleanup hitter coming to the plate. But the pitcher and catcher manage to outfox their opponent with some craftily thrown knuckleballs, rattling him so badly he doesn't realize that he's actually managed to get a (admittedly weak) hit. The next batter learns from the mistake and books it down the baseline, but a speedy 2-3 throw puts him out to end the inning. Here's an effective six-page sequence from the comic...
"Aoizaka High School Baseball Club" in Weekly Shonen Sunday 9/16/2005, pages 182-186
Again, notice how the action is perfectly clear, even if you don't understand Japanese. The tenseness of the pitcher's wind-up (and that distinctive knuckleball hand position), the batter's single-minded focus on the incoming ball and his bewilderment at the weakness of his content, the catcher's surprise that his opponent isn't running down the baseline — all of this practically leaps off the page. It isn't common to find a comic that can be perfectly understood without translation, but what I'm seeing here convinces me that I want to see more.
I'm not sure what the next comic is — it seems to be a fight comic with a bit more of a gag aesthetic — but it has some well-choreographed fight sequences full of hyperkinetic action and some carefully thought-out strategizing. The two combatants are a guy in a traditional karate outfit and a thin stranger wearing a cycling outfit with a helmet, so you won't be surprised at all when he takes it off and you discover that "he" is a girl. Guess some clichés are universal. There's still nothing here that would convince me to come back for more, though.
Sandwitched between the next two stories is an article previewing the match-up between Bob Sapp and Hong-Man Choi at the K-1 World GP 2005. I actually managed to see Hong-Man Choi up close and personal- he was checking into the New Takanawa Prince Hotel while I was checking out — and goddammit he's huge. Not much of a fighter, though, if he's losing to Bob Sapp.
The next comic is an entirely forgettable affair about a Buddhist monk who seems to be fighting insect demons. More page filler. It's back to bizarre after that, since the next comic appears to be about ninja chefs and someone faking a pregnancy. It's nonsensical — but in a good way, really..
Fans of InuYasha will be relieved to know that after 423 installments the gang has made absolutely zero progress towards purifying the Shikon jewel or defeating Naraku. Takahashi is definitely keeping this one alive purely because of it's popularity, because the situations are effectively played out at this point.
Zettai Karen Children is apparently about a trio of schoolgirls with ESP powers who fly around blowing up tanks. It's got a cute enough style, but would be utterly forgettable if it weren't for a few panels of the girls getting some rifle butts to the jaw. I'm either appalled by the violence against women, or pleasantly surprised that the author was willing to do something so gutsy.
WildLife is apparently about a young intern at a veterinary hospital. Looks interesting enough, though I'm a bit confused whether one sequence is supposed to be slapstick or sexual harassment.
There's not any baseball in the latest installment of Dramatic Baseball Comic Major, which mostly seems to involve the main character having an argument with his girlfriend over whether they're going to sleep together. It's another comic where the overall action is pretty clear, even if the specifics are impossible to understand.
Love & Collage [sic] looks like a Love Hina ripoff, down to the character designs, though at least all of the love interests appear to be of legal age in this one. This installment seems to involve a mysterious woman who attacks cute girls and scribbles on their faces with marker out of jealousy. Not interesting enough to merit a second glance.
There's a tennis manga that seems to be pretty standard stuff, as is a gag manga about a Buddhist exorcist. The comic that follows those two, though, is notable for having the creepiest faces I've ever seen in a manga. Everyone's features are just slightly off from where they should be, and abstracted to a degree that makes their expressions wooden. They all look like deformed plastic people.
After that there's an ice skating manga, Gamon the DemolitionMan, (who doesn't seem to be doing much in the way of demolition), and what I assume is a gag manga where the joke seems to be that everyone has the same face. At least, I hope it's a gag manga. It doesn't seem very funny, so there's a possibility it's being played straight. The tory after that is apparently about vampires fighting other supernatural creatures, but the real appeal lies in its thick linework and heavy black shading, which gives it a unique look.
And then it's back to bizarre with Le Cirque de Karakuri, which features a cosmonaut chained in a space capsule, a puppet-monster with horns, mime make-up and a derby hat, and a Chinese martial artist fighting a person who seems to be half Colonel Saunders and half Green Arrow. It doesn't make any sense at all, and more power to it. The issue then wraps up with a few quick gag strips about abandoned cats.
Looking back over my reviews, there seems to only be one or two comics that I really enjoyed, and a handful of comics that showed some potential. But the low price point effectively prevents the money I spent on this issue from being a total waste — after all, the $2.10 I spent on this issue wouldn't even buy me a single DC or Marvel comic, and instead it purchased a sampling of 23 sports, action, romance and humor comics.
Is it any wonder that American comic companies can't compete with this?