Favorite Manga Series, Part I: 20th Century Boys through Ultraman

Graphic titles are big news. Even if you’re not a pop-culture connoisseur, you can’t have missed the graphic titles regularly popping up on bestseller lists—not to mention their various incarnations on film and even the stage!

When Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for Mausthe genre got its can’t-be-ignored nod of mainstream (even highbrow) approval. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Persepolis 2 have topped numerous lists, and are ubiquitous on syllabi from middle-school to college. Alison Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home achieved dramatic success with multiple major awards, hitting Broadway before going on national tour.

Gene Luen Yang continues to make major graphic news, which began with his American Born Chinese becoming the first-ever graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award in 2006. Yang was an NBA finalist in 2013 for his Boxers & Saints, was declared a MacArthur “Genius” in 2016, and he’s the current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature for the Library of Congress.

And then there’s the three-part March series created by Congressman Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. March: Book Three won pretty much every major book honor last year, and become the first graphic title to get a coveted National Book Award seal on its cover. It also won the Coretta Scott King, Michael L. Printz, Robert F. Sibert, YALSA Excellence for Nonfiction, Walter Dean Myers awards, and more besides.

So here’s the bottom line: What’s not to love about a fabulous story that also happens to be enhanced and embellished with equally amazing pictures?

I’ll warn you now: addiction ahead!

 

20th Century Boys and 21st Century Boys (24 volumes), by Naoki Urasawa, with the cooperation of Takashi Nagasaki, English adaptation by Akemi Wegmüller

Once upon a time, Kenji wanted to be a rock-star guitarist. But somehow, in 1997, he’s ended up managing a convenience store with his cranky mother. Then he gets word that his childhood friend Donkey has committed suicide. Flashback to 1969: Kenji, Donkey, and the best of the neighborhood boys have a secret club, complete with secret hideout and secret symbols. All of a sudden, back in the present, the “Book of Prophecy” they wrote as kids is making news as a faceless cult leader sets out to destroy the world.

 

Attack on Titan (22 volumes), by Hajime Isayama, translated by Sheldon Drzka

“To You, 2,000 Years From Now,” the series opens, and the future is not looking good. What’s left of the human race has been relegated to a heavily guarded three-ringed fortress. Outside this “Human Territory,” the Titans run free—they’re a behemoth breed of human-like beings that lumber naked, lack genitals, and live to feast on screaming human flesh. They nearly wiped out the entire human population 107 years ago. Human survivors have lived in relative peace for 100 years, but the Titans are on the attack again, man vs. monster ensues. There are fantastical plots, the pace is relentless, the odds are impossible, and multi-dimensional characters are everywhere. And it’s all woven into a meditation on the unconditional bonds of family. The series’ success made significant publishing headlines in 2014: “‘Attack on Titan’ Drives Manga Rebound at New York Comic Con.” Beyond the manga, various spin-offs continue to appear, including related “light” novels, an anime series, an animated feature filmvideo games, a live action film, and more.

 

Barefoot Gen (10 volumes), by Keiji Nakazawa, translated by Project Gen

Atom bomb. Unimaginable horrors. Survival against all odds. Bearing witness. Hope for peace. Keiji Nakazawa was six when “Little Boy” decimated Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Barefoot Gen is his amazing memorial. Project Gen, a non-profit, all-volunteer group made up of Japanese and Americans living in Tokyo, commenced the herculean task of translating Nakazawa’s graphic testimony into English in 1976, and completed the first four of the original 10 volumes. By the 1990s, Project Gen had all but disappeared, but it remerged in 1994 to translate all 10 volumes into Russian. In 2000, Project Gen set about completing their English translation. And in 2002, a publishing deal with Last Gasp of San Francisco brought the full set to Anglophone readers. Each volume ends with a plea from Project Gen: “In the hope that humanity will never repeat the tragedy of the atomic bombing, the volunteers of Project Gen want children and adults all over the world to hear Gen’s story . . . Our prayer is that Barefoot Gen will contribute in some small way to the abolition of nuclear weapons before this new century is over.” Amen to the power of literature.

 

Limit (six volumes), by Keiko Suenobu, translated by Mari Morimoto

The class “exchange camp”—a five-day trip during the second year of high school—is about to start. Konno’s class is the last to set out for the rundown facility eight hours away. En route, the bus crashes into a deep ravine; Konno wakes in utter darkness and, in the light of her (“no signal”) cell phone, realizes her shocking situation. After she struggles out of the carnage, Konno eventually finds four other survivors. In this horror, all social pretenses are stripped away: survival has nothing to do with looks, privilege, or expectations, especially when the most bullied, tormented girl is holding a deadly sickle in her hands and looking for revenge. Limit throws the girls into a brutal 21st-century Lord of the Flies.

 

The Flowers of Evil (11 volumes), by Shuzo Oshimi, translated by Paul Starr

At Hikari City South Middle School, Takao Kasuga is bored and failing. He’d rather read Charles Baudelaire (whose single poetry collection, Les Fleurs du mal—The Flowers of Evil—inspired the manga title) than study for any math test. Nanako Saeki, the embodiment of perfection for the love-lorn Kasuga, is again lauded as top of the class. Meanwhile social pariah Sawa Nakamura is singled out for her zero score. She responds by cursing at the teacher who becomes apoplectic. The stage is set for a tale of teenage terror. A major hit in his native Japan, Shuzo Oshimi is a master of discomfiting manipulation. From panel to panel, his middle schoolers go from wide-eyed innocence to utterily creepy. As the narrative grows ever more disturbing, Oshimi interrupts his chapters with unexpectedly chatty little reminiscences, random moments of inspiration, fluffy talk of books and films he likes. The repetitive juxtaposition of freaky and cutesy is jarring and exponentially increases the shudders.

 

Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit (10 volumes), by Motoro Mase, translated by John Werry, English adaptation by Kristina Blachere

“[T]o make people value life,” one in 1,000 first-graders receives a fatal nanocapsule in his or her mandatory immunization. Notice of death is delivered via ikigami (literally, “death paper”) to the victim, aged 18-24, exactly 24 hours before the predetermined moment of death. Although you could read the volumes in any order—each of the chapters is a standalone episode of an arbitrary ikigami victim’s final day. You probably don’t want to miss the ongoing narrative that follows Kengo Fujimoto’s from his initial misgivings about his new job as the ikigami messenger through his tenure with the National Welfare system. It’s fascinating to watch Fujimoto’s personal relationships, career challenges, and the unsettled state of his conscience.

 

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (14 volumes), by Eiji Otsuka, art by Housui Yamazaki, translated by Toshifumi Yoshida, edited by Carl Gustav Horn

A mismatched clan is at the heart of the fantastic Kurosagi (“black crane”) Corpse Delivery Service. Five unemployed Buddhist university students band together to help the dead find eternal peace: Numata finds the dead; Karatsu talks to the dead; Sasaki hacks any necessary background information about the dead; Makino preserves the dead; and Yata has a handheld sock puppet that is often the lone voice of reason. Irreverent dark humor—with plenty of gore, so don’t read it late at night—fills these other-worldly volumes as the five solve the crimes amd help suffering souls find everlasting peace.

 

Monster (18 volumes), by Naoki Urasawa, English adaptation by Agnes Yoshida, translated by various, including Satch Watanabe, Masaru Noma, Hiroki Shirota, Hirotaka Kakiya

A talented neurosurgeon, young Dr. Kenzo Tenma is a rising star at Eisler Memorial Hospital in Düsseldorf. One fateful night, he goes against the hospital director’s politically motivated orders to operate on the collapsed mayor. instead Tenma saves the life of a young boy whose parents have been murdered. The mayor dies, the director and his medical henchmen are mysteriously murdered, and the young boy disappears. Enter Inspector Lunge of the German Federal Criminal Police Office. He investigates the case while the good doctor—now Chief of Surgery—saves lives. Nine years later, Lunge and Tenma cross paths again . . . when the young boy that Tenma saved reveals himself to be a murderous Monster. The chase is on.

 

Prophecy (three volumes), by Tetsuya Tsutsui, translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian

His user name is “paperboy_1878.” He rents booths at various Pit Boy internet cafés. He wears a newspaper mask. He posts video warnings. And then he carries out vigilante justice. If your food company causes a mass poisoning incident, your factory will burn. If you serve deep-fried cockroaches to unsuspecting diners, you’ll be forced to eat from a “special” menu. If you publicly blame the victim for a sex crime . . . well, let’s just say you’ll be very, very publically uncomfortable. Tokyo’s Metropolitan Police Department Anti Cyber Crimes Division is stumped. Erika Yoshino, the lead investigator, is riled. Let the showdown commence. We’re talking breathtaking, blood pressure-raising, morals-questioning, brain-challenging fun.

 

Ultraman (8 volumes, thus far), by Eiichi Shimizu, illustrated by Tomohiro Shimoguchi, translated by Joe Yamazaki

“We used to fanatically watch reruns of Ultraman as kids,” creators Shimizu and Shimoguchi confess. “We never dreamed we would be working on an Ultraman manga several decades later.” I was a huge fan of the TV show! The manga reboot opens with: “Once there was a being known as the Giant of Light, who merged with an earthling, . . . and saved the planet countless times from acts of chaos and destruction.” When peace was finally restored, the Giant of Light returned to his faraway home, while the earthling had a “normal” life, albeit with his “Light” memories erased. Decades later, Earth is again at risk. Shin Hayata, a member of the Science Special Search Party, is called in for a meeting.He’s told one shocking truth after another: not only is he Shin Ultraman, but he’s passed on the “Ultraman factor” to his young son Shinjiro. Fast forward 12 years when teenage Shinjiro finds out why he’s so different from the other boys. With father and son finally able to show their true selves, the epic adventures begin! Talk about an elated hop-skip-and-a-jump to my childhood! Creators Shimizu and Shimoguchi have done their homework: Ultraman is really baaaaack! For those of us of a certain age, it’s an ahhh-inducing thrill you can rapturously share with a new generation.

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hong.terry@gmail.com'

About the Author:

Terry Hong created and maintains Smithsonian BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. She was the writer wrangler for the film Girl Rising. She taught for Duke University’s Leadership in the Arts in NYC. She co-authored two books, Eastern Standard Time: A Guide to Asian Influence on American Culture from Astro Boy to Zen Buddhism and What Do I Read Next? Multicultural Literature. She reviews extensively for many publications. Follow her on Twitter at @SIBookDragon.

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