July Favorites

It’s been another bustling, busy month, but I made good on my promise and read more comics in July! I’m still more behind on my reading than I’d like to be, but it feels good to get back into some kind of routine (even if I have been doing all my work from our new couch instead of at my desk…).

At the top of the month, I started recording a four-part series with the wonderful gentlemen of the Manga Machinations podcast, a retrospective of Akiko Higashimura’s EISNER-AWARD WINNING Tokyo Tarareba Girls. Long-time readers and folks who follow me on Twitter will know that this is one of my absolute favorite modern series. I wrote about my feelings on the first volume ages ago, and those feelings have multiplied and intensified with each passing volume. By the time this post goes up, we’ll be three-quarters of the way through the retrospective. I hope that those of you who have had a chance to read the series will listen to our discussion of it and give us some feedback on your feelings about Higashimura’s love letter to 30-something women and the problems they face. It’s thrilling that I was able to talk about this series in the midst of its Eisner victory. Deb Aoki asked for some of my thoughts on the win and its potential affect on sales for her Answerman column over on Anime News Network, as well. I can’t reiterate enough how every manga fan should follow Deb on Twitter if they want all the latest news from cons and publishers. She’s a force of nature with her Tweeting skills!

I’ve also continued my work for The Comics Beat with reviews for Beastars volume 1, Junji Ito’s Smashed anthology, and the first two volumes of Satoko and Nada. Writing long-form manga reviews is my favorite job right now, hands down. It’s nice to be able to take the skills I utilized recommending manga to customers through working at Comicopia and translate that into recommending manga to readers all over the world. Since leaving the shop, I had been feeling a little isolated from the comics community, but writing for The Beat has helped me reaffirm my place within it and remind me that the work I do is worthwhile and (hopefully) helpful to readers.

So a lot is happening for me these days, and I’m hoping to have even more good news for you next month. But for now, it’s time to talk about what you all came to read — my favorite comics that I read in July. Some of these will likely be given the full Comics Beat review treatment in the near future, but I wanted to write about them a bit in a space where I can let my personal bias really shine through. :3

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Popocomi, by various — published by Eriko Obayashi of Books and Gallery POPOTAME

I bought this wonderful anthology at TCAF and finally, finally sat down to read it. Organized by the Japanese comic shop POPOTAME, this collection features works by “underground” Japanese mangaka — something readers in the West rarely get to see. This collection runs the gamut from more straightforward short narratives to surreal or nonsensical offerings. It certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I was really impressed with the variety and the skill on display. I was especially fond of Ikumi Nakada‘s melancholy “In a Worm-Eaten Town” and Maiko Dake‘s bubbly “FROM the BOOK SHOP.” They’re very different little glimpses into the lives of a couple of young women, but they both struck me with their ability to convey tone and emotion through the expressiveness (or lack thereof) of their characters. This collection was created in collaboration with TCAF and translated by the incomparable Jocelyne Allen, who has translated scores of my favorite books, provided interpretations for Junji Ito during TCAF, and who is a lot of fun to hang out with. The book was enthusiastically sold to me by one of the artists (whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch!), and came with a sweet little map of bookshops in Ikebukuro-Mejiro. The whole experience of buying and reading this book was unique, and it reminded me of the importance of connecting bookshops and artists with their products — something I believe in very strongly. Support your local bookstores! Support your local artists! Remember that a lot of love and care goes into putting together the works you love.

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Waves, by Ingrid Chabbert & Carole Maurel — published by BOOM! Studios

I’m going to be completely honest — I sobbed through this book. The protagonist is pregnant, and the reader is made to believe this is not her first pregnancy, but that her other attempts thus far have failed. She and her wife are deeply invested in having a child, but because the protagonist’s condition is so tenuous, she is made to stay in the hospital. Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worst and the couple loses their precious son — stillborn. God, I’m starting to tear up just typing this! But the story is not just about losing the baby. It is about how that loss is used to help the protagonist push forward and find hope in a new career of writing books for children. This is an autobiographical comic with gorgeous illustrations by Carole Maurel that utilize color to great success. It’s definitely not a light read, but it is short and extremely affecting. I thought it was brilliant, even if I had to read a lot of it through blurred vision.

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Our Dreams At Dusk, by Yuhki Kamatani — published by Seven Seas Entertainment

I have been SO excited for this release for so long, and I finally got my hands on a copy through the library. It is a little different from what I anticipated, but I’m not at all disappointed in it; rather, I think it’s great, and I can’t wait to check out the next volume which just recently came out. Protagonist Tasuku Kaname is struggling at school. Not with bad grades, but with being the new kid and being singled out for being gay. Of course, he didn’t tell anyone that he was gay, and he vehemently denies it, but the teasing comes anyway, to the point where Tasuku’s conflicting feelings nearly lead him to make a fatal decision. Luckily, he is distracted by a woman he sees in the distance who appears to be jumping to her death as well, and when he runs to see what became of her, he is confronted with her, whole and hale, and referred to by everyone in the drop-in center he found her in as “Someone-san.” Through this strange encounter, Tasuku meets others who are queer, and he is able to begin confronting his own fears about his sexuality and what it means for his life and his relationships. I find it deeply gratifying to have a fictional LGBTQ+ manga written by a non-binary creator and depicting a supportive queer network. A lot of the genuine queer works we’ve seen coming Stateside are autobiographical, and while their messages are so important, it is nice to see the field open up to fiction that isn’t relegated to BL or yuri — both of which are great in their own way, but which seldom reflect lived experiences or common concerns, especially amongst queer youth. Kamatani is know for their other manga series, Nabari no Ou, and I’m hoping that the name recognition might help get this manga into the hands of those who need it most — though my guess is that it’s already doing quite well based on the force of its subject matter alone. The importance of the story and characters aside, Kamatani’s artwork is gorgeous — fluid and expressive, with a boldness that I wasn’t expecting based on the dreamy cover designs.

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Blank Canvas, by Akiko Higashimura — published by Seven Seas Entertainment

This month I finished reading Tokyo Tarareba Girls and then immediately delved straight into Higashimura’s autobiographical work Blank Canvas, where she details her teenage experience of attending art classes outside of school to help boost her portfolio for college, and her relationship with an old, ornery art teacher who helped her improve immensely. I love Higashimura’s no-holds-barred, unflattering depiction of herself at that age: cocky, under-motivated, and underneath everything, deeply uncertain. This helps to shed new light on Higashimura’s many successes as a mangaka, reminding readers that while there might be something about her that is innately talented, it took years and years of work and drilling to become the master she is today. I could have used this manga as a self-assured teen, if only to light a fire under my butt to work harder at my dreams and to seek out the guidance I didn’t really think I needed. I’m still a little too cocksure sometimes, so it’s amazing to see someone I respect as much as Higashimura humble herself for her audience in this way. I’m not sure I’d have the same confidence if I were her, but she has absolutely, 100% earned it. And besides, she seems like the kind of teen it would have been fun to be friends with.

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Classmates, by Asumiko Nakamura — published by Seven Seas Entertainment

There was a time, not too long ago, where I was very skeptical of Seven Seas’s output. They published a lot of works that were not for me in the extreme, with plenty of fanservice and an uncomfortable blurry line between what constituted age-appropriate content and what did not. And yet here I am today, promoting three of their recent manga with nothing but my highest accolades. At some point around the time they published My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, Seven Seas took a deep dive into queer stories and have really set the standard for what types of manga readers are really scrambling for. Among those is one of my all-time favorite manga, Classmates. DMP had already owned this license, for digital distribution only, so I had read it a couple years back. I was struck then by a few things: the genuine sweetness of the story itself, and Asumiko Nakamura’s bizarre, stretchy, almost uncomfortable art style (which I adore). In my twenty-ish years of manga reading, I’ve read a lot of BL. A vast majority of it has been purely horny trash, stuff I didn’t particularly even like but felt compelled to read just to see if I could find the hidden gems. And the hidden gems are there, but you have to wade through scores of tropes: near-rape or rape scenes, coercion, incest, abuse, student-teacher relationships…basically, the tawdry, the inappropriate, and the obscene. But sometimes a manga like Classmates comes along — a sweet story about two teenage boys who fall in love and stumble through a predictable teenage relationship without too much meddling from the outside. And it’s a happy manga, one that brightens your day with its effortless charm and its delightfully wacky artwork. Nakamura’s long-limbed, long-lashed, almost alien-looking characters seem suited to eroguro works or philosophical stories — and she’s done things like that, too (I’m thinking specifically of Utsubora) — but somehow her distinct flair makes the characters’ expressions of amorousness, embarrassment, and teenage hilarity all the more effective. I’m so glad that this series has gotten the print treatment, and I hope that it draws in many, many new readers!

Phew! A really long one this month to make up for June’s scarcity. It’s nice to be back on a roll with reading — let’s hope I can keep it up for a while. Until next month, I wish you all happy reading!

May Favorites

As I’m writing this, I’m gearing to move out of my apartment and into a new, slightly bigger one (the better to accommodate my ever-increasing manga collection, right?), and I’m surrounded by boxes and boxes of my stuff. There’s nothing that makes you want to consider a life of asceticism quite like moving. May has been very much a transitional month for me, in more ways than just a change of address.

I already wrote a little bit about my adventures at TCAF. That sojourn sparked a lot of excitement and motivation within me, so hopefully I’ll be stepping up on my manga writing even more in the aftermath — gotta ride that wave of inspiration for as long as possible!

And something I haven’t mentioned yet is that I have contributed a short piece on manga basics to the upcoming CBLDF Presents Selling Comics: The Guide to Retailing and Best Practices in the Greatest Modern Art Form. I am so, so excited to have been asked to do this; about six years ago, CBLDF and Dark Horse collaborated on a similar book all about manga that featured writing from many intelligent, excellent writers whom I greatly admire. And since I have a lot of strong feelings about comics retail and selling manga in particular, this felt like an excellent first foray into comics print publication for me.

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In between all the travel and writing, I did get a chance to read some really excellent books of all stripes. As usual, it’s time for me to highlight my favorite comics for the month!

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A Quick & Easy Guide to Queer & Trans Identities, by Mady G & J.R. Zuckerberg — published by Limerence Press

Last year, Oni Press’s Limerence imprint published A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns, which I thought was absolutely excellent, and I was gratified that we sold a ton of copies at Comicopia. With its friendly, non-judgmental tone and low price point, it was a really nice, gentle introduction to the topic of non-binary genders for people of all backgrounds. And so, I was very excited when Queer & Trans Identities was announced. It’s slightly less auto-biographical, but equally kind in its delivery with the added bonus of covering a lot of ground succinctly. There are two “stories” going on at the same time: A snail is teaching other snails all about different human identities and expressions, and a fantasy world populated by “sproutlings” shows the identity progression of one of its citizens. The artwork is adorable, bright, and fun, and the back matter encourages readers to create their own “sprout-sona” and design matching friendship jackets. I think what I enjoyed most about this guide was its dedication to inclusivity, and its patient guidance through myriad identities and sexualities — and a wonderful chapter on forging healthy, caring relationships that everyone, regardless of gender or sexuality, could use. I think this is a wonderful addendum to any coming-of-age talk that a parent or teacher might have with a young person, and it provides resources for further research as well. Growing up, I had to figure out my own ideas of gender and sexuality without the guidance of any adult queer person, and even though I have no real regrets or concerns about my own path, I think this is an endlessly valuable guide that I and my peers could have really benefited from.

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Kid Gloves: Nine Months of Careful Chaos, by Lucy Knisley — published by FirstSecond

It is a really, really scary time to be a person with a uterus in the United States right now. Abortion rights are being overturned state by state, causing people like me — even those of us who want to get pregnant and have children! — to worry about our autonomy and our value in the eyes of the law. So it was a really interesting time to decide to read Lucy Knisley’s autobiographical account of her very high-risk pregnancy — a book I had been patiently waiting to read since it came out, but scores of people already had on hold at my local library. This was actually the first of Knisley’s books I’ve ever read, though I do follow her avidly on Instagram, and it was worth the wait.

From the time most girls are born, there is an emphasis on them becoming mothers, whether intentionally or by accident. There is a lot of burden placed on girls and women to have babies and also to prevent them, lest they be marked “fast” or “easy.” But what I think doesn’t get talked about quite enough is how complicated and often dangerous pregnancy is — or how little control a pregnant person has over what happens to their body and their baby, in the grand scheme of things. So I appreciated Knisley’s openness about her two miscarriages, her extraordinary battle with constant morning sickness, and her concerns about pre-eclampsia that went unaddressed by her doctor. All these deeply personal and evocative anecdotes are peppered with chapters on the history of pregnancy and gynecological medicine, which is a personal interest of mine anyway (I love the Sawbones podcast!). And though she struggled so fiercely through her pregnancy, it is so clear how much she loves her son, how grateful she is for his presence in her life. This is an excellent read for our times, a good reminder that pregnancy and motherhood should never be forced upon a person, that it is a great risk and a great responsibility.

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Saint Young Men, Volume 1, by Hikaru Nakamura — published by Kodansha (digital only)

I feel as though I’ve been waiting for this manga all my life. It’s commonly known that mangaka Hikaru Nakamura has been hesitant for Saint Young Men to have an English-language release, for fear that it might stir up some religious controversy. But as a proudly lapsed Catholic, I am ecstatic that it has finally made it Stateside. I am a huge fan of religious comedies; my favorite novel is Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, and Dogma is pretty high up on my list of favorite films. So the premise of Jesus Christ and Siddhartha Gautama kicking it in a tiny apartment in Japan just for fun is exactly in my wheelhouse. I appreciate anything that humanizes the figures that people worship, that allows common people to identify with these holy beings. I think that at the root of spirituality is the understanding that at our most basic, we are all connected to one another. And somehow, I think that comedy often conveys this idea better than any fire and brimstone sermon, catching us with our hearts and minds more open than they would be when we’re expecting to be lectured. Nakamura has a knack for finding the little things that elicit the big laughs — like how Jesus is so enamored of the fact that teenage girls think he looks like Johnny Depp, or how Buddha loves Osamu Tezuka (and especially Tezuka’s biography of Buddha himself). She’s also extremely adept at illustrating extreme expressions and inserting funny little tidbits, like the text on the T-shirts that Buddha screen-prints for the two of them. I really hope that this volume sees a lot of success so that maybe a print version will follow along soon!

It looks like I covered some heavy territory this month — gender identity, pregnancy and parenthood, and religion. But I was left with feelings of immense peace and gratitude after reading all these books, and I was able to reflect on my own ideas and beliefs without feeling judged or confused. It’s a rare thing, in our world today, to come away from hot-button issues feeling refreshed rather than completely exhausted and demoralized — and trust me, I’ve spent plenty of time there lately, as well. I always appreciate when reading can both be informative and act as a refuge, as a tool of empowerment to be wielded in my day-to-day life. We are very lucky to see these kinds of works being published, and I can’t wait to see what else we can look forward to in the future.