December brings shorter days, endless Christmas songs, and a strong urge to compile best-of-the-year lists. This was a good year for manga, with strong showings by blockbuster ongoing series and the launch of some intriguing new ones. Here’s a look at some of the manga we thought were the cream of the 2018 crop.
Best New Series
My Hero Academia: Vigilantes, by Hideyuki Furuhashi and Betten Court
This spinoff of the mega-popular school-for-superheroes manga My Hero Academia may actually be more entertaining than the original—which is saying a lot. This one is about a trio of would-be superheroes who didn’t make the cut. Koichi has a quirk—a mildly useful superpower—but as he’s not hero material, he’s not supposed to use it. When he dons his Nice Guy suit, though, he does good deeds—picks up dropped phones, gives directions, takes out the recycling. Pop Step, another outlaw, uses her quirk to draw crowds to her idol-ish act; her scanty costume doesn’t hurt. And Knuckleduster: Janitor of the Fist takes out a different kind of trash—he’s looking for users of a new drug, Trigger, that amps up people’s quirks, allowing them to become supervillains. While some of the characters of the original series drop in from time to time, Vigilantes is really a whole new story set in the world of the original, exploiting a different set of possibilities, and completely enjoyable on its own. The creators add some notes about character development, and they make a number of allusions to American superheroes, which adds to the richness of this story.
Ran and the Gray World, by Aki Irie
Ran is a little girl who wants to be a sorceress, like her mother. Unlike other manga girls, she doesn’t need to go to a special school to learn magic powers—all she has to do is put on her magic sneakers. When she does, though, she also transforms into an adult—a beautiful woman, natch—but she’s still mentally a kid. Knowing the perils this will expose her to, her father and brother try to keep her away from the shoes, but she outsmarts them every time. Irie’s clear-lined art beautifully depicts the chaos of Ran’s world, and her elongated characters are reminiscent of Natsume Ono. Viz has made a good choice in giving this first volume the deluxe treatment, with a larger trim size than usual and a heavy cover with French flaps. It really shows off the distinctive art, and makes the book feel special.
Frankenstein: Junji Ito Story Collection, by Junji Ito
This pairing makes a lot of sense: Ito is a master of stories where ordinary things turn horrific and then spiral out of control, and that’s exactly what happens in Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein. Ito’s adaptation is faithful to the original; the opening scenes are fairly deadpan, but when it comes to depicting the monster and its destruction, the manga-ka is in his element. This manga pulls out the stitches on the layers of clichés that have accumulated around this story over the years, taking it straight back to its roots.
RWBY: Official Manga Anthology, by various
“Various” is a good description of the creators of this anthology: each volume centers on a single character from the title quartet—Ruby Rose, Weiss Schnee, Blake Belladonna, and Yang Xiao Long—and shows her in a variety of settings and situations, from baking cookies at home to fighting the darkest of monsters. Because the characters are so different, we learn details of their backstory and the quirks of their personalities, all in a series of short pieces. These books are a great companion to the hit animated series.
Ibitsu, by Haruto Ryo
This manga, complete in one volume, starts with an urban legend about a girl who lurks near a garbage drop, dressed in tattered Gothic Lolita clothing and holding an equally beat-up stuffed rabbit. If you’re thinking “Nothing good can come from an encounter with her,” well, you’ve obviously read horror manga before. Kazuki finds outas much when he runs into her and makes the mistake of answering her question, “Do you have a little sister?” Soon he is being stalked by the mysterious girl, who lets herself into his apartment and starts rearranging things, then attacks his sister and the rest of his family and their friends, chasing them down and killing them in grotesque ways. This is a straight-up horror story with enough variation in characters and situations to keep it interesting, even as you know that whatever comes next isn’t going to be pretty.
Dementia 21, by Kago
Kago is a master of surrealistic horror, and this collection of short stories about a home health aid caring for patients with dementia allows him to show off his chops, as he creates a series of demented situations for the cheerful but hapless aide Yukie. Dentures that have a mind of their own, an addled woman causes people to snap out of existence when she forgets them, aging superheroes in diapers reprise their great battles, and a strange highway has different lanes for the dying and the dead… Each story goes barreling off in a different direction and doesn’t stop until it reaches the most absurd possible conclusion. There’s plenty of body horror in here, and it’s not for the squeamish, but Kago’s crisp, realistic style gives it an antiseptic feeling as well—which makes it all the more powerful when everything disintegrates.
Dr. Stone, by Riichiro Inagaki and Boichi
You’d think that after all these years, the Shonen Jump people would run out of ideas for new series. Nope! This one is strangely original, yet it fits the template nicely: seems the entire world was turned to stone for 3,700 years, and a handful of survivors must recreate all of human civilization from shells, rocks, and bits of flora and fauna. Since this is a Shonen Jump manga, all the survivors (so far at least) are teenagers, and one of them is a pretty, bashful girl. That’s Yuzuriha. The others are a Senku, a science genius; Tsukasa, a powerful but amoral fighter; and Taiju, a regular guy with more brawn than brains and zero killer instinct. Since he cracked his stone shell, Senku has been devising ways to create everything needed to restore civilization, from the liquid that dissolves the stone to gunpowder—a necessity given Tsukasa’s violent tendencies. It’s a MacGyveresque survival story with a touch of Battle Royale, more than a little goofiness, and a sprinkling of fun science facts—how to make gunpowder, anyone?
Again!!, by Mitsurou Kubo
If you could do high school all over again, what would you do differently? For Kinichiro, the answer is “join the ouendan club.” Ouendan is a very particular type of cheerleading, different from the regular sort (with whom, in this series, the ouendan club is in competition). On his first day of school, Kinichiro was weirdly drawn to the captain of the squad—who was also its only member—but he never followed up. On graduation day, a fall down a flight of stairs sends him and a female classmate four years into the past, he this second time around he decides to get involved with the ouendan club and its odd captain. He could hardly do worse than he did before, as on his first try he graduated with no friends and no accomplishments to speak of. But the opposite is true of his companion on this trip back to the past, who is having a much harder time of it. The ouendan club puts an interesting spin on this time-travel high-school romance, written by one of the co-creators of the anime Yuri on Ice.
That Blue Sky Feeling, by Okura and Coma Hashii
This manga, which started out as a webcomic, is a refreshing break from the standard cliches of high school romance, particularly gay high school romance. Noshiro is the new kid in the class, and he quickly finds a crowd of his own, but he is fascinated by the loner Sanada. Sanada, for his part, doesn’t seem to be anxious to connect with anyone other than his sole female friend. When Noshiro learns that Sanada is being shunned because he is gay, his sense of fair play takes over and he insists on reaching out to the boy, refusing to be deterred by his standoffishness. By the end of the first double-size volume, the reader is a little ahead of Noshiro in realizing what is really going on—but that’s part of what makes this story feel so grounded and down to earth. For once, a high school romance in which the characters act like real people.
Hakumei & Mikochi: Tiny Little Life in the Woods, by Takuto Kishiki
This is a manga about two tiny little women who live in the woods, just as it says on the cover, although their tininess isn’t always obvious. Their cuteness is, however, always on full display. Rotund and adorable, they go about their business in this slice-of-tiny-life manga, riding beetles to get around, cooking up things from herbs and mushrooms, and meeting up with friends to have tiny little adventures. Kishiki’s art is both cute and super detailed, which is not an easy look to pull off. It works here: this series is delightful both visually and as a fun, relaxing read.
Tokyo Tarareba Girls, by Akiko Higashimura
This is a smart comedy about a single woman who is worried her chances at marriage are dwindling, even though she’s not so sure that’s what she wants anyway. When career woman Rinko goes out drinking with her two best friends to celebrate her 33rd birthday, the food on her plate starts talking to her, questioning all her life choices so far. Not only does Rinko have to debate with a liver steak and a piece of cod milt, but she and her friends also get a scolding from a guy at the bar. Soon her world starts to fall apart, as she loses a scriptwriting gig thanks to that outspoken bar patron (who turns out to be a model) and the guy she thinks is going to propose asks out her barely-legal assistant instead. Fed up with it all, she decides she will get married by the time Tokyo hosts the Olympics in 2020. That may sound like a recipe for disaster, but it’s a very entertaining disaster, especially when the talking bar snacks get into the act.
The Bride Was a Boy, by Chii
This charming single-volume manga, done in a loose, diary-comic style, is a memoir of the author’s romance and marriage. It’s also a cheery account of transgender life and the complications that come not only with being transgender but with going through the transition. It’s very down-to-earth, as Chii explains the practical aspects, including some legal matters that are specific to Japan, and it also reads nicely as a breezy, fun romance.
Dead Dead Demon’s Dededede Destruction, by Inio Asano
Aliens invade Tokyo but are beaten back by the local defense forces. That’s not what this manga is about, though—by the time we meet high-schoolers Koyama Kadode and Nakagawa Oran, the invasion is three years in the past, and while the spaceship continues to hover over the city, as the story opens, the aliens themselves are nowhere to be seen. This sense of heaviness and anticipation pervades the two girls’ worlds; Kadode’s father disappeared during the invasion, and her mother is barely coping, while Oran is fascinated by conspiracy theories she finds online. The two girls go about what passes for everyday life, playing video games and texting each other, but this is Asano, so there’s a lot more going on as well, including Kadode’s attraction to her teacher and a lot of political-military stuff that shows up on the news although the girls mostly ignore it. Asano regards this as lighter than his other manga (Goodnight PunPun, solanin) , which isn’t saying a lot, but it’s definitely interesting to see him take his considerable talents in a new direction.
City, by Keiichi Arawi
Arawi, the creator of the surreal school comedy nichijou,brings his talents to a slightly more structured story about slightly older characters. City follows Midori, a broke college student, through the streets of a large city where she has one encounter after another with friends, her landlady, the local policeman…This series has a similar vibe to nichijou, with short scenes, goofy characters, slapstick humor, and plenty of non sequiturs, but it feels a bit more like a traditional narrative, albeit one that is still shooting off in eight different directions at once.
Silver Spoon, by Hiromu Arakawa
If you were asked how Arakawa would follow up her legendary shonen fantasy Fullmetal Alchemist, how many of you would have guessed “a comedy about animal husbandry”? Unexpected or no, this series is undeniably charming, a slice-of-rural-life tale follows high school student Yuugo Hachiken, who escapes from his overbearing father by enrolling in an agricultural school in Hokkaido. Of course, it’s not what he expects at all, and there’s plenty of humor to be found whenever a city boy winds up in the country. Brainy Yuugo quickly learns farming is about a lot more than book smarts, and his stiff demeanor soon begins to crumble under the onslaught of his charming classmates, all of whom are more attuned to agricultural life than he is (and herein is revealed the series’ shonen DNA). In the end, just as Fullmetal Alchemist was about growing up more than it was alchemy, Silver Spoon is about more than just cows and pigs—it’s the story of a young man coming into his own.
The Best Ongoing Series
The Promised Neverland, by Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demizu
The orphans who live at Grace Field House are a happy lot, well fed and cheerful, and headed to good homes: almost all of them are adopted out by the time they turn 11. Or so they think: In fact, the orphans are being fattened up to be fed to monsters on the outside. Emma and Norman, two of the older children, discover what is happening and enlist their super-brainy friend Ray to help them plot an escape. It’s not easy, with the seemingly benign “Mom” (and later, a less pleasant “Sister”) looking over them and an elaborate security system keeping them penned on the farm. They have to outwit their captors and get away before they are “adopted”—and Emma insists they rescue all the children, even the youngest, something the others don’t believe they can do. This story has all kinds of tension coming from all different directions: some allies are untrustworthy, some seeming successes are really double-crosses, and danger lurks around every corner. It’s a smart, suspenseful, beautifully drawn dark-fantasy manga, and one of the most addictive series running.
My Hero Academia, by Kohei Horikoshi
My Hero Academia is a superhero story set in a world where almost everyone has a weird, limited superpower, called a quirk, and the most powerful and best known superheroes are celebrities. Izuku Midoriya is one of the few born without a quirk, but what he lacks in talent, he makes up for in earnestness and studiousness, and in the first volume a washed-up superhero, All Might, bestows his own power on the young man, which gets him into the prestigious Hero Academy, a school for superheroes. The students don’t spend much time on lessons, because there’s always some villain crashing in or a practical exam cooked up by the bizarre faculty, and in addition, there’s the competition between Midoriya and his longtime nemesis and bully, Katsuki Bakugo. My Hero Academia combines the earnestness of superhero comics with the core elements of shonen manga—a plucky hero, quirky side characters, plenty of battles, and a dash of fanservice. What really makes the story a delight, though, is Horikoshi’s endlessly inventive imagination, as he populates the story with scores of odd-looking characters with abilities that really are more “quirks” than superpowers.
Tokyo Ghoul: re, by Sui Ishida
Tokyo Ghoul: re picks up its story directly from Tokyo Ghoul, and it’s almost impossible to describe it without spoiling the original series. Suffice it to say we are back in the world of ghouls and ghoul hunters, where the lines between humans and ghouls are sometimes blurred. This series follows a team of ghoul investigators who receive organ implants from ghouls in order to gain some of their powers without losing their humanity. Together they hunt the most notorious ghouls and try to tear down the ghouls’ organizations, but the past starts to catch up with them. Like the original Tokyo Ghoul, this series is filled with dark secrets, bloody battles, and unforgettable characters.
One Punch Man, by ONE and Yusuke Murata
One Punch Man should have been a one-joke manga, a spoof about a blasé superhero who is so strong he can dispatch any enemy with a single punch, which makes his life boring. The fact that ONE and Murata have been able to spin it out into so many volumes, and keep it entertaining, is a testament to their creative skills. Like My Hero Academia, it is filled with goofy superheroes and grotesque villains, as well as plenty of fighting, all done with tongue firmly in cheek. You get the feeling that both creators sit down and just dream up as many crazy characters as they can, then figure out a plot to set them all in motion at once. It’s funny, it’s full of action, and it never gets old.
The Golden Kamuy, by Satoru Noda
Although it’s set in the northern region of Hokkaido, not the Yukon, this series has a Jack London feel to it. Saichi Sugimoto, who earned the nickname “The Immortal” during the Russo-Japanese War, heads north to prospect for gold, hoping to accumulate enough wealth to pay for medical treatment for his best friend’s widow. When a fellow prospector tells him of a hidden treasure, the game is afoot. The first complication is that the only map to the treasure is tattooed on the skins of a group of escaped prisoners, so Sugimoto must track them down one by one. The other complication is that despite his battle skills, he’s not really equipped to deal with the rigors of the Hokkaido wilderness. Fortunately, he meets Asirpa, one of the indigenous Ainu people of the region, and with that, this becomes a buddy story of sorts, as the grizzled soldier and the young native girl go after the human puzzle pieces, one at a time, while battling the others who are running after the treasure as well. Gory, action-packed, and beautifully drawn, this series is filled with intriguing details of Ainu life as well as quiet moments and suspenseful battles. Jack London would have loved it!
Delicious in Dungeon, by Ryoko Kui
When a foodie manga meets a dungeon-fantasy manga, you get Delicious in Dungeon,a series about a group of adventurers who run out of food so they start eating the monsters they are slaying. But how will Laois and his team know what’s edible and what to cook? Other adventurers contribute their knowledge, and a fair amount of experimentation goes on as well. Kui leavens the story with quite a bit of humor, and like Astra: Lost in Space, this series is filled with critters and plants that are familiar enough to be plausible but different enough to look weird—and a little unsettling. And lest you worry the dish will get stale after a few volumes, it’s also worth mentioning: there’s a compelling ongoing narrative here, too: not just about the strange secrets of the dungeon, but in the relationships between the lovable cast of misfits at its center.
Behind the Scenes, by Bisco Hatori
Hatori, the creator of Ouran High School Host Club and Millennium Snow, mixes up some standard manga tropes with a gang of creative characters in this story about a college student who joins the Art Squad, the crew that creates props, costumes, and settings for film students. It’s a bit like Paradise Kiss, with a fairly normal character finding not only self-confidence but a sense of belonging among a group of crazy creative people. Ranmaru, the lead character of Behind the Scenes, comes from a fishing town and doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere, but it turns out that he has some unique skills that are valuable to the Art Squad. Of course, the Art Squad has some strong personalities as well, and Hatori makes the most of the many opportunities it offers for conflict and drama. This manga is not too demanding on the brain, but it’s a lot of fun to read.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, by Akira Himekawa
The two-woman team that goes by Akira Himekawa has been drawing manga based on The Legend of Zelda games for years, but this series breaks new ground for them: It’s darker and more nuanced than their earlier work. While it follows the basic plot of the game of the same name, this series stands well on its own and is worth reading not just for the story but also for the characters and settings, as they bring the elements of the game to life. (Want to know more? Check out my interview with Akira Himekawa.)
Astra Lost in Space, by Kento Shinohara
The first rule of manga is that all school trips go awry. This one goes spectacularly awry, as a group of high school students go to space camp and end up on a deserted spaceship millions of miles from home. With no communications system and limited supplies, their only option is to hopscotch from planet to planet to collect food and water on their way back to earth. Each member of the group has a unique skill set that they need to survive—one is good at identifying flora and fauna, one has a good memory, etc.—but there’s also plenty of tension, especially after it becomes clear that at least part of their situation was no accident. This is a classic setup, enlivened by a varied cast of characters and the author’s talent for creating alien flora and fauna that are familiar and weird looking at the same time. The art is clear and uncluttered, making this an especially good read for newcomers to manga.
Descending Stories, by Haruko Kumota
A story about storytellers sounds kind of meta, but this series really is a great soap opera set in the world of rakugo, traditional Japanese storytelling. At the beginning of the series, the lead character has just been released from prison, and he goes straight to the home of the rakugo master Yakumo Yurakutei VIII, begging to be his disciple. At first no one takes the young man seriously—they nickname him Yotaro, or fool—but he sticks with it, and Yakumo becomes fonder of him he introduces him gradually not only to the world of rakugo but also to the stories of his own past, including the mysterious death of his best friend and strongest rival, the storyteller Sukeroku. The third member of Yakumo’s household is Konatsu, Sukeroku’s daughter, who blames Yakumo for her father’s death and resents his insistence that rakugo is a male-only art. As the series goes on, more characters are introduced and the focus shifts back and forth between the stories and the real world. Complete in 10 volumes, this is an enthralling and memorable series.
Erased, by Kei Sanbei
At 29, Satoru Fujinuma is frustrated with his lack of success as a manga creator. He delivers pizza to make ends meet, and he doesn’t have much of a life outside of that job and his manga. Then, out of the blue, he starts moving backwards in time just a few minutes, and continues doing so until he spots what’s wrong and prevents a disaster. Then, when his mother is murdered—and he is blamed—he skips all the way back to his childhood, and he knows that he will have to stop the murder of a schoolmate and track down her killer in order to save not only his mother but also the innocent man who faces execution for the crime. Sanbei plunges us into both of Fujinuma’s worlds, his childhood and the present day of the story, with plenty of key details and realistic characters, and the resolution of the story includes a very clever twist.
To Your Eternity, by Yoshitoki Oima
Another unexpected followup to a hit series, Oima’s first major work in the wake of A Silent Voice couldn’t be more different in tone or subject matter. To Your Eternity is an apocalyptic science fantasy of sorts about a strange lifeform that begins its existence as an orb that can take on any shape, but seems to be compelled to continually evolve into ever more complex living things. It goes quickly from a rock, to moss, to a wolf, which becomes the companion of a boy living alone in a frozen wilderness. When the boy dies, it takes on his shape—but it must continue to travel, to evolve, and to die and be reborn in order to gain human qualities (both good and bad). The next phase of its journey brings it to a village where a young girl is about to be sacrificed to the local god—and for the first time, we see a flicker of humanity. A Silent Voice, was ultimately a story about bullying and forgiveness; this series has a very different setting, but the same skillful depiction of human society and emotions. With beautiful art and an ever-expanding premise, it’s definitely a keeper—the central character’s resilience in the face of the worst humanity can throw at it is oddly admirable, even when you aren’t sure the world it inhabits is worth the trouble.
What new or ongoing manga did you love most in 2018?