My Favorite Manga So Far

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I love reading graphic novels, so I’m interested in manga, but it’s hard for me to find the good stuff. I’m not so interested in infinite battles (“We defeated the thing! Oh hey, there’s another thing”), awkward teenage romances (“I’ve… I’ve never…”), and crazy sci-fi-paranormal flizzle-flazzle (“Sir! The bioflavanoids are at record levels! We haven’t much time!”)

Fortunately, the genre is deep. Beneath the shonen surface, there are interesting volumes that make it over here. The strange. The beautiful. Classic stuff. Food stuff. Funny stuff.

Here are some of my favorites.

manga-oishinbo1Oishinbo

Good for: learning about food and care.

Often switching between specific education on Japanese food and drink (I learned so much about sake it was eye-opening!) and blog-like rants on creativity, perfection, and inspiration, Oishinbo is really good. If you’re not a foodie, you will be. (There’s some bonus peripheral/goofy soap-opera drama, too!)

Oishinbo is split into several themed volumes:

manga-oishinboricemanga-oishinboramenmanga-oishinboizakayamanga-oishinbofishmanga-oishinbocuisine

manga-ayakoAyako

Good For: gripping, sad human drama.

A historical drama about a family falling apart post-WW II, with interlocking story lines and a dark narrative. Everyone is pretty terrible, which makes for good reading. It’s from Osamu Tezuka, the unbelievably prolific “godfather” of manga. This is a great example of his serious side.

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Solanin

Good For: early 20’s soul searching dramedy.

“Straddling the line between her years as a student and the rest of her life, Meiko struggles with the feeling that she’s just not cut out to be a part of the real world.” Asano’s art is unbelievable, totally unique and unconventional. And it’s a funny book. The early-20’s feelings it brought back were so familiar it was almost uncomfortable.

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Project X: Cup Noodle

Good For: entrepreneurs. I swear.

This is a book literally about the invention and creation of the Nissin Cup Noodle. Like a Wikipedia article come to life! This hard-to-find Project X series might be my favorite manga yet, and I’m probably the only buyer. It’s something only the Japanese would do: business manga! I wish there were a hundred volumes for every product.

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Project X: Seven Eleven

Good For: getting excited about business.

Once again, this is literally what it says it is: a manga about how Seven Eleven came to Japan, the challenges they faced, and how they pulled it off. Did you know the Japanese actually invented the walk-in cooler concept that revolutionized the convenience store industry? Have I mentioned how much I love the concept of Business Manga?

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Project X: 240Z

Good For: because business is awesome. And cars.

This is the dramatic story of the creation of the most successful sports car in the world, told through manga. The last business one, I promise. “This manga demonstrates the virtues necessary for businesspeople to succeed”, says the top Amazon comment. Yes, it’s good.

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Neko Ramen

Good For: laughing at a cat running a ramen shop.

A former kitten model (!) who ran away from home finds a new life as the owner of a ramen shop. (He doesn’t really seem to understand he’s a cat.) His best friend is a loyal customer who suffers through the many troubles related to, well, a cat owning a ramen shop. It’s not deep, but it’s funny. You’ll breeze through this on the toilet and laugh so much you’ll be glad you’re on said toilet.

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Black Blizzard

Good For: clififhanging early manga pulp adventure.

A movie-like, page-turning adventure about a pianist, a criminal, an avalanche, a train, an abandoned ranger station… you’ll see. This manga was written over 50 years ago — it’s one of the first ever published works of gekiga (adult, serious, dramatic) manga. It’s short. It’s simple. But I loved it.  If you’re not familiar with manga “classics”, why not start here.

manga-driftinglife

A Drifting Life

Good For: autobiographical manga history.

Tatsumi, the author of Black Blizzard (above), as the father of “gekiga”, tells his own story. This 840-page epic covers the early days of the manga publishing industry, post-war Japanese history, his personal life and influences, and more. It’s really good. And his art style is fascinating: comically simple faces, hugely intricate and complex backgrounds.

manga-diary

Disappearance Diary

Good For: autobiographical disconnection.

Conversely, here’s the story of Azuma, a fringe Japanese comic artist who, through alcoholism and presumably mental illness, essentially becomes a homeless drifter. This stuff really happened. Written in a weirdly light and comic style — I don’t think he wanted to dwell on the darkness — it’s amazing to read this and see how easily life can go off the rails.

manga-devilblues

Me and the Devil Blues

Good For: phantasmagorical blues music drama.

A stunning, fictional, supernatural folktale about the non-fictional Robert Johnson, blues musician, who sells his soul the devil in exchange for musical talent. And lots more. The art is utterly fantastic, the story is gripping and crazy, and the setting of the American South in 1930s is really interesting / challenging for a Japanese manga. Somehow it all works.

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Black Jack Vol. 1

Good For: soap-opera medical cautionary tales.

A rogue, unlicensed surgeon! Short, self-contained stories with strong moral lessons. Gross and cool black-and-white illustrations of sci-fi surgery. Cool, pulpy, 70’s locations and settings. Sure, Black Jack feels a little dated, but I bought all 17 volumes. (And a warning: if the story centers on an animal, you’ll cry.)

manga-withlight

With The Light

Good For: insight into raising an autistic child.

“A long, realistically drawn narrative about a young couple coping with the discovery that their infant son is autistic.” The josei manga (“ladies’ comic”) genre can get a bit syrupy, but I include this in my list mostly as a great example of how manga can touch on topics that traditional graphic novels don’t typically touch. I think it’s educational and fascinating.

manga-adolf

Message to Adolf

Good For: dramatic, riveting Tezuka storytelling.

“As events progress, the lives of three Adolfs, each from distinct origins, intertwine and become more and more tangled as Sohei Toge searches for his brother’s murderer.” Another intense and solid Tezuka drama that I just finished. I can’t wait to pick up the second volume next year.

(I linked ‘em all to Amazon — buy something and I get an amusing kickback!)

I hope you enjoy some of these. If you do — or don’t — let me know!

BONUS! Christmas Contest!

Ten lucky people who post a comment recommending their own favorite graphic novels (of any genre) will get a free copy of Project X: 7-11 or Project X: 240ZX. Seriously, I’ll just mail you one. I don’t know why. Business manga! Good luck!

The Art of Foodfight!

As a fan of animation and terrible things, I’ve been waiting years to see Foodfight!, a feature length CGI family film about supermarket brands and Nazis.

(This 2004 article in The New York Times flies all necessary red flags, and includes this incredible piece of journalistic bet-hedging: “Depending on how it turns out, word of mouth advertising, and its competition when it is released, ‘Foodfight!’ could be a huge success — or bomb at the box office.”)

The company want bankrupt. The guarantors put the film up for auction, which is why it’s officially “© Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company”. A British distributor picked up the rights, and put Foodfight! on DVD. I bought a copy. Finally, 12 years later, I watched Foodfight!

Since mere words can’t do the awful animation justice, I began to post a bunch of animated .gifs from the film on Twitter.

And here they are. Enjoy?

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Continue reading

The DAK Catalog

The Paper Life-Changer

It’s unbelievable.

When I was little, my favorite thing to read was the DAK Catalog. (Yes, I was an interesting kid.) I’d pore over them, page by page, usually at the dinner table, dreaming the technology inside between bites of Shake ‘n Bake.

Drew Alan Kaplan — DAK — felt like your personal connection to a world of overseas, cutting-edge technology, selling the 80’s to you every month, via direct mail.

Sure, the products were, or at least looked, amazing. But the true star was the catalog itself. Drew wrote every word of every page. Or was that part of the pitch? It doesn’t matter. He sold goods like his life depended on it.

Nearly every product got a full page. The photos were amazing. His copy always clever and concise. The strange, compelling headlines. The “$20,000 challenge” to a radar detector competitor. The electronics that were bargains because of “printing errors” or “missing switches”. You wanted to read it all.

I learned a lot from DAK. So I wanted to share it with you.

World’s Cheapest Time Machine

These catalogs are even more fun in 2012. Fax machines. Shredders. Graphic equalizers. So many phones. So much has changed in a short period of time. We’ve watched it happen.

But I discovered a shocking hole in the internet: nobody had these catalogs online that I could find. So I started buying them on eBay — about one shows up a year, and I am the only person who ever bids. Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only person who loved these pages. I might be. That’s why I scanned them all for you.

There’s something in here for everyone. If you’re a designer, you’ll appreciate the amazing product photography and layouts. If you’re a technologist, you’ll love seeing how far we’ve come. If you’re a writer, you’ll revel in the crisp copy. If you’re a humorist, you’ll laugh at the bear phone.

I hope you enjoy these catalogs as much as I did, and still do.

Click on any cover to download a PDF of that catalog (about 50MB).

(What happened to DAK? After some troubles with Tokai Bank, the money, and the catalog, went away. His amazing Y2K-special website tried to capture the essence of the catalog but just wasn’t the same. He declined my requests for an interview.)

If you have any DAK catalogs lying around, let me know and I’ll add them here!

Small World

When I was 15, my family took a trip to the UK. I was pretty obsessed with the country since my two favorite things in the world — my Commodore 64, and later my Amiga — were actually celebrated there. I would buy import British computer magazines (at Rich’s Cigar, still do) and pore over them infinitely at the dinner table.

One of my favorite things to do on my Amiga was write music in trackers, a unique, note-by-note way to write tunes that was half-music, half-programming.

When in England, I requested a stop: the offices of CU Amiga magazine. We showed up and rang the buzzer and someone thoughtfully let us in and we sat around a table and talked — 15-year-old me, my Dad (thanks Dad), and the magazine’s technical editor, Mat Broomfield. Eventually, I pulled out a disk with one of my Amiga songs I’d written, just to share. 

Mat surprised me: “Hey, how about we make this the tune of the month, and put it on the next cover disk!”. I was thrilled. And nervous. (The song was unfinished.)

They mentioned something about a free subscription to the magazine (it never showed), and I never saw the actual issue itself (importing was spotty), so I assumed it just never came together, and eventually forgot about it.

Until last year. It all came flooding back. Did I dream this? I nervously Googled.

There it was, thanks to the internet: the September ’91 issue coverdisk.

I quickly found and bought a DVD of every issue of CU Amiga. It really happened:

Then, Cut to Yesterday

Rob Beschizza, out of Boing Boing, read my post about The Incident music:

 

To summarize: not only did the magazine actually publish my dumb song, but a 13-year-old Rob Beschizza remixed it, and as internet pals we had no idea until yesterday that we shared this connection.

You’re pretty cool, universe.

(For the curious, here’s the song on SoundCloud, and the original modI’m warning you: it’s not good. The middle portion is wholesale ripped off from the TurboGrafx game Ys, and I have no idea why it goes all Russian at the end, I think I got bored. But, it’s now a piece of personal history.)

Finally, Consider This Postscript

Steven Frank, co-founder of Panic, and I met because I was looking for the ProTracker software used to write this Amiga music, and he had a copy. Were it not for Amiga mod music, Panic would not exist.

The Incident: The Music

A while back I was graciously asked by my friends Neven and Matt to do the music for their retro-styled, totally droptacular iOS game, The Incident. Me and music have a strange relationship — I love writing songs but don’t typically like for anybody to hear them. But it’d always been a dream to do game music, so I shushed my brain and did my best.

To match the 8-bit visuals, I returned to my roots: I plopped out a Bootcamp partition with Windows XP, installed a copy of Famitracker — a music app that emulates the original Nintendo sound chip — and started typing (yep, qwerty) some songs in classic “tracker” format, just like my Amiga days.

It was nerdy-cool to think that this music could actually be compiled and played on an original Nintendo if someone so desired. In other words, there’s no post-production trickery here — I stuck to the limitations of the format, which means two Square wave channels, one Triangle channel, one Noise channel, and an extra channel that could kind of play PCM samples. (I also “cheated” on a few tracks by enabling the little-used Konami VRC6 sound chip to get two bonus square channels.)

For anyone who enjoyed The Incident, or just enjoys bleepy-blippy things, I’m pleased to finally provide the soundtrack!

1. Title Screen

Mysterious!

2. Main Theme

This entire song materialized, fully formed, in my head during a jog to work, so thanks to whatever makes that happen. I’d describe this as “urgent noir”. (Bonus for the curious: my goofy voice memo in the office trying to save the idea.)

3. Game Over

It takes death to tango. (Here’s the piano sketch.)

4. Pause

This is somehow, for me, the most enduring of all of these tracks…

…as I love playing this on the piano where I weirdly turn into a kind of 60’s dance number. I recorded this for Shaun Inman for some reason:

5. Tweet Sheet

Later, when Neven and Matt added the ability to Tweet your score, I added the Twitter Song. (There were actually lyrics to this at one point?)

6. The End

By far the trickiest track because it required movie-like scoring to picture, under very difficult technical restraints — i.e., hitting “Play” in Quicktime then desperately trying to mark transition points on the fly in Famitracker. If you’ve ever seen the ending to The Incident, though, I think this music helped seal the mysterious deal.

7. Endless Mode

Later, these guys added an “Endless” mode where players go for a high score rather than beating levels. This meant another theme, a little more stressful.

8. Endless Freak-Out (w/vocals)

Now here’s an easter-egg that virtually no-one has heard, until now.

I had the idea that, if the user was doing really well at the endless mode, in the zone and about to nail a high score, it would be my duty to try to throw them off of their game.

My idea? The 8-bit music suddenly gets a little piano. And the piano suddenly gets some goofy vocals. And out of the blue, the game starts singing you a weird kind of piano rock opera track, existentially discussing your gaming performance. And this, hopefully, freaks you out and makes you die.

Hear for yourself:

Matt scrambled the file so that this song couldn’t easily be ripped from the bundle. As far as I know, only a single player of The Incident experienced this trick!

That single e-mail was exactly what we were hoping for:

“Hi!  I was just playing The Incident and got a new high score of 299 metres in Endless Nightfall! (I’m sunrun on Game Center) I have a strange question: I’m *sure* that while I was playing I heard a weird song with singing or something. I had the sound down low at the time and didn’t think to pause the game so I could turn it up to hear it better. Am I out of my mind, or is there a hidden song in the game?! It seemed to then revert back to the normal music. If I’m right, is it possible to hear it somehow? What are the circumstances under which it plays? And if I’m wrong and there isn’t a hidden song, maybe it means I’ve been playing this game way too much!? -Lance.”

Mission accomplished.

9. Main Theme (Swing Version, Unused)

A failed experiment with hilarious white-noise jazz hi-hats.

10. Bonus: El Incidente y El Tema del Amor

An amazing acoustic guitar cover from Pete Bosack, I love this so much.

11. Bonus: Fallin’ Up (Look Out for Love)

An equally incredible buddy cop cover from the ever-talented Adam Lisagor.

Download It All!

I’ve put together all of this music, my voice memos, and even my Famitracker source files, into this convenient zip. Download here:

And enjoy!