Satoshi Kon, by Jennie Warren, LA Weekly
You know, I don't usually do annual lists like these. Something about breaking up a year of great media into a formula weirds me out. But Luke asked me nicely for my take on manga in 2013, and I think it's worth taking a look at the spread of excellent new and ongoing fare that's hit shelves and tablets this past year. Both manga and anime are staging something of a comeback from a low period, with a variety of great stuff on TV, in bookstores, and available online. The manga boom of the early 2000s gave way to a chilling bust, but the industry is starting to shake that funk off and produce some sustained hits and important works. Let's look at my picks for ten of the best.
10) Tropic of the Sea by Satoshi Kon
You're reading that correctly - Satoshi Kon, the late, great director of anime masterpieces like Millennium Actress and Perfect Blue also found time to draw manga. In fact, he established himself as a manga artist before breaking big in the anime business, and this single volume tale is one of his earliest works. A lot of the stuff we've grown to love about his films is here: his attention to detail, his bracingly realistic character artwork, and the moral complexity of his storytelling all manifest themselves.
Like Kon's animation, Tropic of the Sea is a story that operates on many levels - in some ways, it's about the inevitable clash between generations, as an idealistic young man butts head with his pragmatic father. In other ways, it's about coming home to a sleepy seaside town after years spent living away; it's about the inexorable, greedy march of progress. And it's about mystery, about the tantalizing silhouette of a mermaid that binds all of these elements together. Tropic of the Sea is no masterpiece, but it's an immensely valuable and fascinating look at how one of the anime medium's masters developed his narrative style.
9) Fort of Apocalypse by Yuu Kuraishi and Kazu Inabe
Zombies are still red-hot business, so it's no surprise that zombie manga, from High School of the Dead to Sankarea, is all the rage, right along with The Walking Dead and World War Z. If you ask me, the absolute best zombie manga going is Kengo Hanazawa's savage, brutally funny I Am a Hero - but with no publishing deal in English, my fallback option is Kuraishi and Inabe's Fort of Apocalypse. The story here starts with the usual building block - society's swift, calamitous collapse in the face of a zombie outbreak - but sets it at a closed-off juvenile prison camp. Protagonist Yoshiaki Maeda has been falsely accused and locked up, but quickly falls in with an enjoyably stereotypical trio of evil geniuses. They're charged by the psychotic de-facto leader of the facility with securing weapons, and make their way out into the ruined world.
What ensues is part Dawn of the Dead, part Lord of the Flies, and part Left 4 Dead. Despite the common zombie story elements, Fort of Apocalypse is a relatively fresh take on zombies, with multiple weird types all doing the bidding of an otherworldly "master key" zombie, who pursues the protagonist relentlessly across Japan. When the zombies aren't in pursuit, Maeda and his pals have to deal with killers at the school, plus a U.N-backed military force with deeply questionable motivations. A page turner that leaves me hungry for every rotten chapter, Fort of Apocalypse isn't yet available in book form - you can read it by visiting Crunchyroll.com's new manga section, which works like a charm on phones and tablets as well as PCs. Check it out!
8) Saturn Apartments by Hisae Iwaoka
Here's a title that's slowly but surely been climbing up my own personal charts since it started publication in English in 2010. But Saturn Apartments wrapped up this year, so let's lavish a little praise on it. I'd put Saturn Apartments in the same category as fare like Kou Yagunima's Twin Spica, a story that takes some surprising and forward-looking settings and populates them with realistic, sympathetic characters. In this case, we've got kind of a stunningly weird concept-in the future, planet earth is declared a national park. Mankind constructs and retreats to a gigantic, stratospheric ring hanging 35 kilometers above the earth's surface. This new society is heavily stratified, however: while the great and the good occupy the top of the ring, and the middle levels are dedicated to vast gardens and educating the population, the working class reside and work on the drab, stifling lowest levels of the ring.
Mitsu is one such worker, thrust into a tough job as a stratospheric window-washer after his father perishes in the same profession. With little time for personal growth and reflection, Mitsu is forced by circumstances to join the workforce right after junior high-the kid sets to work, learning the job, getting to know his peers and clientele, and quietly searching for answers surrounding his father's death. Iwaoka's delicate linework sometimes comes off like a slightly more realistic Mobius-in particular, her sweeping depictions of the lower level exteriors, where Mitsu can see both the earth and the sky, are breathtaking. Her exploration of Saturn Apartments' quirky society is always interesting, and while Mitsu has that all-too-typical flawless shonen hero vibe, he's set apart by his willingness to reach out to all his clients, even the rich asshole ones. An omnibus release of this 7-volume wonder wouldn't be unwelcome.
7) Ten-Cent Manga by Shigeru Sugiura and Osamu Tezuka
Manga's been a pretty big deal for a long time. But in the wake of World War II, Japan had some unique problems getting manga to the public-paper was too damn expensive to allow for cheap, widely-available mass printing. Still, the people hungered for manga, and so the concept of manga rental houses was born. This led to two important developments: wider availability of manga, and the opportunity for artists to create stories beyond the common gag-based manga that had existed previously. A young man named Osamu Tezuka seized on this opportunity, rocketing to fame on the back of a book called New Treasure Island. Not long after this, Tezuka would publish his first 100% solo work: The Mysterious Underground Men, the story of a boy genius inventor and his talking bunny pal, who thwart the attempts of a malevolent subterranean kingdom to destroy the surface. This single volume is rough as hell, one of the famed God of Manga's earliest professional works. Still, it's great fun, fascinating from a historical perspective, and packed with engrossing liner notes.
Sugiura's Last of the Mohicans is a little bit more straightforward; a streamlined adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper's famous novel. Still, it's neat to see Sugiura's rugged-yet-babyfaced versions of Nathaniel Bumppo and Uncas, as they match wits with colonial forces and a legion of Huron warriors, led by the fearsome and cunning Magua. 2013's kind of been the year of Tezuka, with fare like Unico and Message to Adolf dropping from multiple publishers, but it's just as important to get other seminal works out there. These two editions, from Picture Box Books, are beautiful stuff, exactly what classic manga reprints should be. Unfortunately the publisher is winding things down, so get 'em while they're still in print!
6) Heart of Thomas by Moto Hagio
I think that, on a purely visual level, Moto Hagio might be the finest manga artist ever. Almost every panel of work I've seen by her is like a tiny masterpiece of linework and composition and draftsmanship. Unfortunately, she doesn't have a lot of work available in English - her science fiction-writing peer Keiko Takemiya has the edge there. But in 2010, shoujo manga expert Matt Thorn brought together A Drunken Dream and Other Stories, an anthology of the artist's best short works. Heart of Thomas is the publisher's follow-up, a wistful and spellbinding tale of forbidden love at a boarding school in Germany.
Yeah, Hagio is definitely trading in shoujo aesthetics here, all awash in characters exchanging searching looks and sun-drenched pivotal moments. Heart of Thomas is also one of the earliest examples of shonen-ai, a tale of sometimes weirdly platonic love between boys, spun for the benefit of Hagio's largely female audience in the '70s. But the story, concerning a boy named Juli who must come to terms with his feelings for a tragically lost classmate, really hits the mark, a period piece full of poignant moments. I also have to laud Fantagraphics, who present this rich and vivid story in a beautiful single hardcover volume. I'm hoping this leads to more vintage shoujo manga!