Hot on the heels of ‘The Anime Encyclopedia’ comes this comprehensive guide to manga (in translation). Its author and compiler, Jason Thompson, is singularly well-qualified for the task, having worked as an editor for Viz Publications in the US for many years; more recently he has taken on the role of manga editor for the new magazine ‘Otaku USA’ which is thus far proving a worthy companion to Newtype USA.
Manga has become an extraordinary growth area in American publishing in the twenty-first century, with the appetite for series such as Kishimoto’s ‘Naruto’ and Toriyama’s ‘Dragonball Z’ fuelled by the licensing and broadcasting of their related animes. So Jason Thompson’s guide is a very welcome addition to any library’s shelves, not only as a reference resource, but also as a series of informative and interesting essays on the genre itself. It will also prove invaluable for the keen reader of manga and tempts the casual browser to investigate the many different genres available.
I particularly like the introductory articles at the front of the Guide, in which Jason Thompson provides a fascinating historical overview of manga from its early days in Japan to today as it communicates with a rapidly growing audience worldwide. He asks ‘What Makes Manga Different?’ and answers his own question with two bullet points:
‘1. Manga are stories. Long stories. With endings.’ (A debatable point, especially in the case of ‘X/1999’, ‘Descendants of Darkness’, ‘Bus Gamer’ and innumerable others left hanging on perpetual hiatus, so maybe this should read ‘In an ideal world’.) Thompson makes a perceptive comparison here between the classic American superhero comics which ‘have beginnings but no endings’ and manga which have ‘the dramatic cohesiveness of long-running TV shows’.
‘2. The artist is more important than the property.’ Some sobering facts that I learned here include that ‘a typical weekly title is twenty pages, or a stunning eighty pages a month… In the artist’s notes for ‘YuYu Hakusho,’ Yoshihiro Togashi…comes to the conclusion that he has nineteen free hours per week (“subtract time spent for eating, bathing, biological functions, and other necessities, and I’d only be left with 3-4 hours”).’
These mangaka really suffer for their work!
The guide also offers essays on the different types of manga, ranging from the more familiar genres such as Magical Girls, Mecha and Robots, and Martial Arts, to more specialized topics such as Four Panel, Dojinshi, and Tokusatsu (‘Special Effects’) manga . The pervasive influence of games is not neglected with articles dealing with Video Games and RPGs. These overviews are packed with interesting facts and examples of relevant titles worth investigating and are, for this reviewer at any rate, the most rewarding sections of the guide. The black-and-white illustrations are well chosen, ranging from 80’s classic titles like ‘From Eroica with Love’ and ‘Oh My Goddess!’ to ongoing series such as ‘Air Gear’ and ‘Her Majesty’s Dog’.
As well as General Manga reviews, there are two subsections, one on Yaoi and Gay Manga and the other on Adult Manga. Again, the essays that precede the reviews are fascinating and provide genuinely useful overviews and guidance for readers unfamiliar with these genres.
At the end of the guide there are helpful appendices on Age Ratings (guidance on what can prove a thorny path to tread if you’re buying for younger readers) and on the Japanese language, including tables of hiragana, katakana, some common kanji, with a short pronunciation aid. A glossary and artist index conclude the volume.
But, let’s face it, most readers are going to use this guide either for looking up their favourite manga series to see how it’s been rated, or checking out a new or unfamiliar title that they’ve spotted and are wondering about buying. So, how useful are the reviews? How fair are the ratings? Jason Thompson and his team of reviewers use a four-star rating and, in some dire cases, award 0 stars. This system inevitably sent me leafing through the guide to see whether the reviewers agreed with my tastes in manga. Four stars, predictably, and justly so, for classics such as ‘Rose of Versailles’, ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’, ‘Akira’, and ‘Dragon Ball’. Four stars also for recent stand-out series like ‘Antique Bakery’ by the excellent Fumi Yoshinaga, as well as ‘Monster’, ‘Death Note’, ‘Peach Girl’, and shonen successes ‘Naruto’ and ‘One Piece’.
However, some readers may start to question the authority of the reviewer (as I occasionally found myself doing) when it becomes apparent that he/she is not in sympathy with the manga that they are reviewing. I’m not advocating a wholly uncritical ‘everything is wonderful’ approach here but I didn’t find the addition of star ratings especially helpful. Would a rating of ‘1’ or even ‘0’ stars put a reader off investigating a new series? A case in point is Yun Kouga’s ongoing series ‘Loveless’ which is a hugely popular shojo fantasy title. Does it really merit only two stars and the description ‘Attractively drawn but slow-paced, mopey and introverted’? And that last line ‘The mysteries are eventually resolved but it’s a slow, awkward journey’. I’d love to know in which chapter the mysteries are resolved in case I’ve missed something vital; at the time of writing, there is much fevered discussion on the many fan-sites as to what the resolution might be. ‘Loveless’ is still appearing monthly in ‘Zero-Sum’ magazine in Japan, so only Kouga-sensei can possibly know how it all ends! However, Mason Templar’s perceptive accounts of the many CLAMP series available betray a thorough knowledge of the works under review, even though the reviewer is not reluctant to point out where the artwork and story-telling are not in harmony.
Compiling a ‘complete’ guide to manga is an impossible task, given the large number of new titles being translated into English, two six-monthly updates are promised online (before, presumably, the revised edition comes out). Some of these titles are mentioned in the guide with a single paragraph summary and all the other essential details (Tezuka’s important seinen work ‘MW’, published this autumn, for example); the initials NR for ‘Not Reviewed’ hint at the probability of more detailed coverage to be found online.
‘Manga: The Complete Guide’ is a useful, fascinating and informative work that will appeal to both seasoned manga readers and newcomers alike. It should be on every manga-fan’s Christmas list!