Hallowmangaween!

Halloween is my favorite holiday. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a month(s)-long revel in the joys and fears of mortality, capped by the actual three-day event (Halloween, All Souls’ Day, and All Saints’ Day — I was raised Catholic!). And every year, I tell myself I’m going to experience it to its fullest and be the absolute Halloweeniest I can be — which is almost always derailed by being involved in one too many other activities.

One of my intentions every year is to write about Halloween-appropriate manga, meaning outright horror fare, as well as titles that just generally get into the Halloween spirit. When someone asked me recently on Twitter if I was going to do a horror post for October, I realized that I really had to stop procrastinating and give it a go. And so here we are.

There are countless manga that work in a round-up like this, and countless in-depth pieces that can be written about each of them, surely. For the purposes of this year’s attempt, I’m going to pick out some of my absolute favorites and separate them into different categories in an effort to make this all easy to digest. I hope that this list provides you all with some spooky reading to accompany your horror movie marathons, costume balls, haunted hay rides, cider-sipping, candy-scarfing, and general creepy merriment!

Monster Children

As a society, we’ve decided that children are scary. They pop up in horror films both in Japan and in the West, eerie because of their unpredictable nature and the lack of reason and logic that governs an adult mind. The monster children of the manga I’ve chosen are a little different, operating more as either moral guides or as helpless, sympathetic figures who have unfortunately lost their way or been made to perform bad deeds. I’m particularly fond of this kind of narrative, which asks the reader to consider what exactly it means to be a monster. Very Frankenstein, but with the added bonus of using children for maximum emotional manipulation!

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Kitaro, by Shigeru Mizuki — published by Drawn & Quarterly

Shigeru Mizuki’s classic tales about little Kitaro, last of the Ghost Tribe, are truthfully not very scary. But they are wickedly fun, reveling in a world populated by yokai and monsters of many cultural origins. Kitaro, with help from his father, the walking eyeball Medama Oyaji, and a motley cast of yokai, seeks to rid humankind of cruel, greedy, or evil yokai. He is a superhero of sorts, one who lives between the world of the living and the world of the fantastical. Originally intended for younger readers, the Kitaro stories are rife with silly gags and cartoonish characters, laid over the lush background settings meticulously penned by a one-armed Mizuki. In fact, the legendary mangaka is credited for single-handedly bringing yokai back into the modern consciousness after the Second World War, and I highly recommend seeking out his other yokai-related works. I have a copy of his yokai artbook — a beautiful gift from my husband — which nearly made me cry with its beauty. As a creator, Mizuki embodies several of my favorite things: a love of the strange, an eye for the beautiful, and a willingness to have fun — and to tell poop jokes.

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Cat-Eyed Boy, by Kazuo Umezu — published by VIZ Media (out of print)

With the gorgeous hardcover reprint of The Drifting Classroom so fresh in everyone’s minds, I want to draw attention to my favorite of Kazuo Umezu’s works. Cat-Eyed Boy is a very me manga, starring yet another cheeky monster-child who gets tangled up in the lives of humans. Like Kitaro, Cat-Eyed Boy finds himself rescuing people more often than not, but rarely is he appreciated for his efforts. He’s not well-liked by humankind, doesn’t really fit in with other monsters, and has an all-around salty attitude toward everyone. And he’s precious. Umezu, known for both his horror and his gag manga, combines the two disciplines well in this series. His monsters are more threatening than Mizuki’s, the stakes are often higher, and there are fewer neatly-tied story bows. It puts one in mind of early, pulpy horror comics from the West, stuff like Haunt of Fear or Eerie Comics. Really delightfully naughty scary fare for the mischievous little wanker in all of us.

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Hell Baby, by Hideshi Hino — published by Blast Books (out of print)

It kills me that there are no Hideshi Hino manga currently in print. I want to recommend him to everyone who loves Junji Ito, a mangaka who has spoken of his great love for both Hino and Umezu countless times. In Hell Baby, twin girls are birthed to an excited couple, but they soon discover that one of them is hideously disfigured. Because the new dad is apparently going to win zero parenting awards, he dumps the offending child in the literal garbage, where she predictably dies. But that is not the end for this strange infant. Spirits merge above the junkyard where her corpse rots, entering it and imbuing it with new life. From there, she grows by eating carrion, drinking ditch water, and slurping up earthworms. She is a monster who grows to wreak havoc on the community, destined to get her revenge on the family and the society who spurned her. But she is deeply sympathetic as well. There are scenes of her snuggling up next to a decaying mannequin in the junkyard that make my heart ache for her. Talk about Frankenstein vibes! Hino’s artwork is gross and wonderful, full of inky blackness and never shying away from the horrors perpetrated against Hell Baby — and by her.

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Presents, by Kanako Inuki — published by CMX (out of print)

Another thing we don’t have enough of in North American manga publishing is horror series by women. A couple of Kanako Inuki’s works have come over but are long out of print. Presents could actually fall under “morality plays” too, but because the protagonist, Kurumi, is a child of sorts, it felt right to include it here. Kurumi was never given birthday presents as a child, and because of this has somehow ceased aging. It is her dark duty to wander the world giving presents to others — but these gifts are often more frightening than fun, providing the receiver with their just deserts. Inuki’s artwork is wonderfully bizarre, her characters — nearly all children — squat and bug-eyed, with over-exaggerated expressions. She utilizes a great deal of detail in backgrounds and clothing, placing her doll-like figures in realistic 90s-modern settings. Delightfully fun and creepy, and satisfying in the way it punishes only the deserving while keeping the cursed protagonist as the sympathetic character.

Ghost Stories & Possessions

It can’t be a Halloween recommendation list without ghosts! I took some liberties with what “possession” meant in this category, but basically if it involves haunting or hobknobbing with supernatural entities, and I couldn’t fit it somewhere else, I put it here!

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The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, by Eiji Otsuka & Housui Yamazaki — published by Dark Horse Comics

I have the omnibus versions of this manga, and every time I bought a new one I told myself I would only read one single volumes’ worth and save the rest for the next night. And every time I cracked one open, I devoured the entire thing in one sitting! Our protagonists are five students at a Buddhist university, each with their own special skills or abilities, including embalming, hacking, dowsing for spirits, communicating with alien lifeforms, and being able to channel the dead. Through the use of these skills, the group has created a service through which they perform the final wishes of the deceased. It’s an unusual way to make ends meet, but it seems to work for them! I love the mix of laid-back irreverence displayed by students who are supposed to be at a religious school, paired with their dedication to ultimately doing the right thing to help the dead rest in peace. This series is definitely not for the faint of heart, as there are some really disturbing deaths, but Housui Yamazaki’s clean, controlled artwork is a pleasure to look at, no matter the subject. I desperately want more people to pick this series up so that Dark Horse knows exactly what a gem of a manga it is and continue publishing it — so please, give it a try!

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The Black Museum: The Ghost and the Lady, by Kazuhiro Fujita — published by Kodansha Comics

I initially bought this series because I was intrigued by the subject (ghosts) and the artwork (which has the air of a vintage series, despite having originally come out in 2007). What I wasn’t anticipating was that it was also an historical fiction series set during the Crimean War and largely starring that most famous of nurses, Florence Nightingale. The story is told in a flashback narrated by the Man in Grey, a ghost haunting the Black Museum who had struck up a sort of deal with Nightingale, who herself was surrounded by malevolent spirits at all times, that he can kill her once she finally succumbs to despair. The series is two volumes long (Kodansha has yet to publish the other volume in the Black Museum series, about Spring-Heeled Jack), and full of rich, energetic illustrations of ghosts, mass (gross) illness, feminine grit, and plenty of dueling!

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Muhyo & Roji’s Bureau of Supernatural Investigation, by Yoshiyuki Nishi — published by VIZ Media and available in full on their Shonen Jump app

There are a few Shonen Jump series that could potentially squeak by in a Halloween round up (my two favorites, Yu Yu Hakusho and Yu-Gi-Oh! might count as “spooky” on a technicality), but Muhyo & Roji is one of those series that doesn’t get nearly enough attention, and it’s strictly about ghosts, exorcisms, and general spookiness! When I started reading this series through the then-new Shonen Jump app, I thought it was going to be an episodic monster of the week type deal (which I love), but it actually ended up having a very full story line — and an ending! A shonen series with an ending! Muhyo is a young exorcist of immense ability, and Roji is his apprentice. The two are tasked with exorcising malevolent spirits, but eventually they get dragged into a more earth-shattering issue when a former classmate of Muhyo’s becomes possessed by an evil entity. I simply adore Yoshiyuki Nishi’s inventive and weird creature designs, as well as the relationship between the two main protagonists. (Muhyo shows his affection mainly through being ornery, which is a weakness of mine!)

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Me and the Devil Blues, by Akira Hiramoto — published by Del Rey (out of print)

I had a hard time deciding which category to fit this manga under, but I wanted to make sure I mentioned it. Another historical fiction series, this one was penned by Akira Hiramoto, best known currently for Prison School — but the two series couldn’t be any more different. The manga is named after the song by blues legend Robert Johnson, who is mythologized as a man who sold his soul to the Devil in order to play guitar in the unique way that he did. Hiramoto has decided to play with that myth, depicting Johnson as a man possessed with infernal ability. The result is a gorgeous, dark, angry depiction of the American South that is surprisingly adept with its awareness of race relations and the struggles of a young black musician in the 1920s and 30s, considering it was made by a Japanese man in the 00s. I definitely want to give a warning for violence and offensive language, as the subject matter comes with a lot of baggage related to Jim Crow laws. Hiramoto utilizes an incredible breadth of artistic abilities in this manga, with chapter headers often done in charcoal or graphite, and certain sequences portrayed in brush work instead of pen and screentone. It’s a real gem of a manga, and it’s a shame that it’s out of print and hard to find. If you love gritty Southern Gothic tales, this is a good pick for sure!

Morality Plays with Beautiful Art, Beautiful Men, and Plenty of Mind-Breaking Horrors

You all must know by now that this is one of my absolute favorite genres of fiction, between my writing about it here in the past and tweeting about it all the time. But I’m such a sucker for a mysterious entity doling out prizes or punishments to the deserving (or undeserving) masses. I’m that lady who has The Twilight Zone theme song as my ringtone, so there should be no surprise about my tastes, haha. In recent years, I’ve been able to find a few more examples making their way into English, so I want to share them!

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Pet Shop of Horrors, by Matsuri Akino — published by Tokyopop (out of print)

Okay, I wrote a whole long love-letter to Pet Shop of Horrors earlier this year, and everything I said there still stands. This was the manga that started it all for me, with gorgeous art offset by horrifically detailed punishments. For those unfamiliar, Count D is the proprietor of a pet shop in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, where he provides rare and exotic animals to those seeking something beyond a mere cat or dog. Detective Leon Orcot of the LAPD is determined to bust the Count for operating a drug ring or being involved in some other kind of illegal behavior, but instead he is drawn into the mysterious world of animals who are more than what they seem. The series is unfortunately out of print, and its sequel, Pet Shop of Horrors: Tokyo, was never completed in English. You can watch the anime over on Hi-Dive, and while I don’t think it’s quite as entrancing as the manga, it will give you a good idea of the characters and the premise.

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Nightmare Inspector, by Shin Mashiba — published by VIZ Media

Soon after starting work at Comicopia, I discovered the existence of Nightmare Inspector and promptly ordered myself the first volume. I was thrilled to finally have something similar to Pet Shop of Horrors in premise; it had been so long since I had read it and I wanted to fill that niche again. Here, our mysterious entity is a baku named Hiruko, who eats the nightmares of the clients of the Silver Star Tea House in an effort to help them work through issues. Hiruko has his own dark past, of course, so there is an ongoing plot that inches forward with each new client’s problems. Shin Mashiba’s artwork is way more cutesy and mid-2000s than Akino’s sublime 90s high shojo work, but that cuteness belies many violent images and intense stories of trauma and fear. Lots of fun, worth picking up if Pet Shop is your thing!

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Yokai Rental Shop, by Shin Mashiba — published by Seven Seas Entertainment

Another work by Mashiba! This series came out more recently, in four regular-sized volumes that make it a nice quick Hallowread. In this series, regular old civil servant Hiiragi learns that his half-brother is the proprietor of a pet shop. Said brother, Karasu, is in fact the proprietor of a yokai pet shop, where he forms contracts with various yokai to help his clients meet their needs — often with a hefty price. Karasu and Hiiragi are soon embroiled in their own family fiasco, however, dealing with their cruel yokai father and his desire to create the perfect yokai-human hybrid. Mashiba’s artwork has certainly matured since she wrote Nightmare Inspector, combining digital techniques with traditional. And her monster designs remain creepy and fun, as well!

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Phantom Tales of the Night, by Matsuri — published by Yen Press

I wrote about this series as one of my favorite reads for September, and I think of the newer morality-play-type works I’ve read, it’s probably the most different. In Pet Shop, Nightmare Inspector, and Yokai Rental Shop, the various mysterious shop owners or supernatural entities are a little chaotic, but generally not outright bad. The proprietor of the inn in Phantom Tales of the Night is definitely more sinister, giving his trading in clients’ secrets a bit of a fearsome edge to it. There’s only the one volume out from Yen Press right now, so I’m looking forward to seeing where this lushly illustrated spooky train of vice takes me in the volumes to come!

Vampires

I love vampires. I can’t deny it. I love gross, hairy-palmed Draculas and beautiful, dramatic, excessively romantic vampires. I don’t really know why, but maybe it’s my love of the theatrical. Either way, I often have kind of a hard time finding vampire fiction I like, even though there’s plenty of it out there, so I get really excited when something I judge as good comes my way.

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Midnight Secretary, by Tomu Ohmi — published by VIZ Media

This is, perhaps, the “trashiest” manga I like, the most indulgent of romances I can stomach. Our plucky protagonist, Kaya, is a damn good secretary, and she knows it. When she’s assigned to work with her company’s notoriously difficult director, she takes it in stride — until she discovers that he’s a vampire, and that he as a particular taste for her blood. Despite having all the trappings of a Harlequin romance novel, there’s something about Kaya’s stalwart dedication to her job, even in the face of an absurdly steamy vampire romance, that really endears me to it. And this a surprising series in that everyone I know who has read it loves it — regardless of their gender or their other manga preferences. It’s just charming fun, something a little lighter for those of us who want to get into the Halloween spirit but maybe don’t want to indulge in a gorefest.

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Devils’ Line, by Ryo Hanada — published by Vertical Comics

A decidedly different kind of vampire romance, I like Devils’ Line partially for Ryo Hanada’s penchant for drawing characters with dark under-eye circles — another weakness of mine! But in all seriousness, this story takes place in an alternate modern era where vampire-like people called “devils” co-exist in society but must live under strict rules or else be terminated by special police forces. Anzai is one such devil who works for the police, and in the course of his duties accidentally meets and becomes involved with a young, non-devil, woman named Tsukasa. The two cannot help falling in love with each other, but their romance is fraught with Anzai’s fears about his carnal nature taking over and turning him into a monster who harms Tsukasa. Add in a bunch of government conspiracy, and this is a fun thriller with plenty of blood, action, and a good sprinkling of sex. An anime came out last year, but I didn’t think much of the pilot; I would recommend going for the manga instead.

And with that, I’m calling it quits for now. As I said above, there are countless excellent horror manga — not to mention other horror comics! — but this list has got to end somewhere. You’ll notice that I didn’t bring up body horror (even though I do really like it) or Junji Ito at all. This was partially to keep this already long post a little shorter, and partially because I think, at least in the case of Ito, not much more needs to be said. Most horror fans know about Uzumaki, and with VIZ doing an excellent job of promoting all of his upcoming work, it’s hard to avoid hearing about Ito. It’s worth noting that he actually is one of my very favorite mangaka, so don’t take this as a slight against him, please! I’m just interested in promoting some lesser-known works this time around. I’m sure there will be opportunity to discuss more horror in the future.

I would like to wish you all a very happy, haunted, horrific Halloween! Have fun, indulge in sweets and spooky media and pumpkin spice! And don’t forget — Halloween can be every day if you so choose. ;3

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August Favorites

I feel as though I start every one of these entries with “a lot has happened this month!” But yet, here I am feeling that sentiment all over again. With the last installment of our four-episode podcast series on Tokyo Tarareba Girls, the Manga Machinations podcast welcomed me on as a permanent host, starting in September. A couple weeks later, I announced my pregnancy to the Internet at large. And next week, CBLDF’s Selling Comics essay anthology is coming out, including a piece that I wrote.

I was able to see an advanced copy of Selling Comics recently and I was moved to tears — only partially because of the hormones. I saw my name listed among the names of so many comics retailers and other professionals for whom I have a great deal of respect and admiration, and I was honestly so honored to be among them in this wonderful collection. One of my favorite things to do is provide retailers with tools to sell manga, and it was awesome to have the opportunity to reach a wider audience — and to be featured in a print book! That’s so cool, y’all! I’m so excited.

Even with all this excitement, I managed to get quite a bit of reading in. Now that I’ve gotten into the swing of reviewing for Comics Beat, I am trying my best to stay a little ahead of the curve so I can write about manga close to their release date. This month, I reviewed one of my all-time favorite manga, Asumiko Nakamura’s Classmates, as well as the first volume of Akiko Higashimura’s Blank Canvas, in keeping with my brand of talking up Higashimura whenever and wherever I can.

I’m also looking forward to reading a lot more now that I’m a regular on Manga Machinations! The nice thing about reading in a group is that I’m going to have to branch out and read some things I normally wouldn’t consider. I’m expecting my monthly faves to start to change and evolve to include different, unexpected genres more frequently. But until then, here’s what moved me in August!

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Skull-Face Bookseller Honda-San, Volume 1, by Honda — published by Yen Press

There was no way I was going to come away from this manga without loving every second of it. I had already seen a few episodes of the anime (which I fell behind on because I’m terrible at keeping up with anime) while I was still working at Comicopia, and I shared it with my coworkers at the time. Honda, depicted as a skeleton, works in the comics section of a large Japanese bookstore. Honda has to deal with all kinds of comics fans: Americans hunting for explicit doujinshi for their daughter, foreign BL fangirls, enthusiastic shonen manga otaku — you name it. The customer interactions are relatable enough, but it’s a lot of the nitty-gritty detail of working in book retail that really hit home. From dealing with reps and publicists, to stocking shelves, to having to adhere to street dates…it’s all too real for someone who has been in the trenches. I especially like the part where Honda admits to having difficulty carrying American comics, which are made on heavy, expensive paper and printed in color — and therefore are much, much heavier than manga. I’m also intrigued by the fact that I went into this manga assuming Honda was a man (and the anime gives Honda a masculine voice), but their gender isn’t ever stated, and there are hints that they might be a woman. Honda’s gender doesn’t particularly matter to the story, but I find it fascinating that I assume skeletons are men until told otherwise.

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Snow, Glass, Apples, by Neil Gaiman & adapted by Colleen Doran — published by Dark Horse Comics

This short story by Neil Gaiman has always, always been my absolute favorite of his works, ever since I first read it in his Smoke & Mirrors collection. As a tween, I had an obsession with fairy tale retellings (I was the generation of Ella Enchanted, after all), and as I grew older I was also interested in darker themes in my fiction. And here comes Snow, Glass, Apples, weaving my inherent love for vampires and apple-related betrayals (I have a lot of feelings about the Garden of Eden, okay?) together with a story that places the traditional villain as the victim (I’m named after Morgan le Faye from Mists of Avalon…), and rendering me completely agog at its perfection. I didn’t think I could love it any more than I already did, but Colleen Doran’s adaptation is spectacular, utilizing a sublime influence from Harry Clarke’s illustrative works and steeping this horrifying tale in gorgeous lusciousness. My favorite kind of horror is always horror that is beautiful, and this adaptation is stunning from the lines to the colors and everything in-between. I cannot recommend it enough.

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Parasyte, Volumes 1 & 2, by Hitoshi Iwaki — published by Kodansha Comics

I admittedly came to this manga really late! It was one of the early licenses that TokyoPop had back in the day, but I was too young to read or appreciate it back then. It’s one of those series where I kept thinking “I really should read this” but never got around to it — though I did watch the first few episodes of the recent anime (but again, I’m bad at keeping up with that stuff). And I am really, truly enjoying it a lot. I like well-done body horror — stuff that’s a little gruesome, but that has a point to it. I also am a sucker for intelligent entities sharing one body (thanks, Yu-Gi-Oh), as well as the struggle of main character Shinichi to determine what it is that makes him human — or what makes humans morally superior to other animals. It’s also really interesting to read about co-habitation of a body when I’m hosting my very own little parasite. Some of the things Shinichi is dealing with — a boundless appetite, new and strange emotions — are very similar to what I’m dealing with…though my baby is probably not an alien parasite bent on human destruction. I’m only two volumes in so far, but a friend of mine lent me the whole series so I’m gonna finish it all soon!

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Way of the Househusband, Volume 1, by Kousuke Oono — published by VIZ Media

I was looking forward to this so much, and I was not disappointed in the least. I got an advanced copy of this and breezed through it. I…really, really love comedies about gangsters, whether they be high school hoodlums or members of the yakuza. In this manga, our protagonist Tatsu is a former yakuza boss who has left “the family” in order to concentrate on keeping house for his wife, a careerwoman working at a design firm. I love the dichotomy of Tatsu’s tough yakuza exterior with his apparently very serious dedication to wearing an adorable apron and making cutesy bento lunches for his wife. He seems to have taken all his yakuza training and applied it to being a househusband, and the results are an endearing and hilarious romp that just leaves you feeling good after you read it. This has its official release later in September, so be sure to preorder it or keep an eye out for it on bookstore shelves!

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Komi Can’t Communicate, Volume 3, by Tomohito Oda — published by VIZ Media

I’ve actually been reading this series for a little while, starting with an advanced copy I got back in April or May. I thought the first volume was cute, but something about it compelled me to keep reading. And now, three volumes in, I’m just really enjoying it. The premise is a boy named Hitohito ends up sitting next to a girl in his class named Komi. Komi has a hard time communicating — and that’s actually an understatement. She doesn’t speak at all, but she is also beautiful and her silence leads classmates to believe she’s just a “cool beauty.” In reality, she’s an anxious mess, and somehow only Hitohito has picked up on this so far. He promises to be her friend, and to help her make 100 friends in high school. Watching Komi’s struggle with making friends is equally charming, relatable, and heartwarming, especially as her newfound friends find ways to help her overcome her communication disorder. This is another one of those simply fun manga, and I encourage anyone who feels the need for a little warm-hearted humor in their life to give it a go.

And with that, August is rapidly coming to a close. I’m always super busy in the fall, and my schedule has already started to ramp up. But I also love September and October, and as I gain baby weight I’m very much looking forward to cooler temperatures. If you’re local, you can find me paneling at LadiesCon on September 21st (some say hi!), and be sure to keep an ear on the Manga Machinations podcast starting first thing in September!