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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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!