My Favorite Reads of 2018

It’s that time of year again, where every single nerd news site tells you what the best-of-the-best comics of the year are.  I’m always wary of trying to make blanket statements about literature, but I did want to share a few of my favorites from this past year.  I’ve done a LOT of reading, and I feel as though I’ve branched out more than usual (or more like, there have been more titles in Western comics that have appealed to me than there have been in the past).

I didn’t give myself a limit to the number of books I chose, nor any kind of guideline as to theme, tone, etc.  I just picked the ones I felt strongly about!  These are listed in roughly the order I read them in, and by no means in order of quality.  They’re all top-notch, anyway!

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The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang

Prince Sebastian has a BIG secret: sometimes he likes to wear dresses and go out on the town as Lady Crystallia.  In addition to keeping this part of himself hidden from Parisian society, he has to deal with his parents determinedly seeking out a bride for him.  Enter Frances, an extremely skilled seamstress with dreams of fashion design whom Sebastian employs to outfit him for all occasions, public and secret.  The story of these two growing together and learning to be their best selves is captured incredibly in Wang’s bright, flowing artwork.  Plenty of humor helps to balance out the heart-rending moments that remind the reader to never lose sight of the things that make them unique.

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Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World, by Pénélope Bagieu

I genuinely did not expect to adore this book as much as I do.  I’m not well-versed in the non-fiction graphic novel, and I’m often suspicious of cheery, pink-emblazoned “girl power” books — not because I don’t believe in girl power, but because it’s hard to encapsulate in one book what it is about womanhood that is so unique.  That said, I was truly fascinated and enthralled by the stories that Bagieu, in her whimsical style, has presented in this hefty tome of awesome and awe-inspiring women.  Women from all backgrounds, in all types of careers, with differing needs and goals, and with all sorts of romantic entanglements and personal dramas, are presented for the reader with reverence, joy, and good humor.

 

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Go For It, Nakamura!, by Syundei

I have been seriously reveling in the increased publication of good, sweet, not-super-fetishistic BL manga this past year or so.  In this exquisite example, young Nakamura knows for sure that he’s gay, and also knows for sure that he’s in love with his classmate, Hirose.  The problem is, he doesn’t even know how to become friends with Hirose, never mind try to ask him out!  Between caring for his pet octopus, perusing questionable BL for romance tips, and just generally trying not to act overly weird, will our stalwart hero ever secure Hirose’s friendship?  A familiar story for anyone who was shy in high school, Go For It, Nakamura! uses awkwardness, hilarity, and genuine heart to create a sweet and fuzzy one-shot that will make you yearn for more.  Syundei’s artwork is adorable, and very reminiscent of that of manga powerhouse Rumiko Takahashi.

 

My brain is poison

Tokyo Tarareba Girls, by Akiko Higashimura

I wrote about my initial reaction to volume one of Akiko Higashimura’s forays into 30-something woman angst back when the print version first came out.  The series is now three print volumes in (with all volumes available digitally), and it has not stopped being maybe the most anticipated title in my pull at work.  Higashimura’s ability to poke fun at the stupidity of a woman’s society-bred anxieties while treating the same character with sympathy and understanding is so incredible to me.  I often find it hard to articulate what it is that makes this series so good, because it’s really everything.  Please…I don’t often make demands, but read Tokyo Tarareba Girls.

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Claudine, by Riyoko Ikeda

I find this manga hard to recommend, even though I love it.  It is a quick read; I read it from start to finish on my half-hour bus ride home from work one day.  But it is also a dramatic and sad read, in true 70s shojo fashion.  Our protagonist Claudine is assigned female at birth, but knows in his heart that he is a man.  Even his own father embraces Claudine as more of a son than a daughter, going riding with him and treating him like his older brothers.  Society in early 20th century France, however, is not as kind.  To the rest of the world, Claudine is a girl, and the tragedy here lies in the outmoded concept that any woman he might love will never lead a fulfilled life with a “woman” partner.  So in many ways, this is a fantastic achievement, being a trans story from 70s Japan; but it is also a story about a trans man from the perspective of a cisgender woman, writing at a time when shojo manga was about deep, dramatic personal struggles and utilizing queerness as a vehicle for those struggles.  If you can go into it with the understanding that it is a sad story (and yes, I did cry on that fateful bus ride home), it is a simply gorgeous and heartbreaking work of tragedy.

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Making Friends, by Kristen Gudsnuk

I’ve been in love with Kristen Gudsnuk’s work ever since I read the first issue of Henchgirl, back when it was released by Scout Comics.  Her artwork is fun, her dialogue is funny, and she makes plenty of obvious anime references that I feel are speaking directly to me and my sense of humor.  So of course I was thrilled when Making Friends came out, and I was not disappointed.  Protagonist Dany is starting middle school, where she is separated from her friends and everything that was familiar to her.  She turns inward and begins to draw in the sketchbook she recently inherited from her recently deceased great-aunt.  Soon she discovers that anything she draws in the sketchbook — including the head of her favorite anime badboy — comes to life!  She quickly devises a plan to create a new, perfect best friend.  But as we all know, magic has serious consequences, and Dany is going to have to figure out how to fix the mess she’s made.  Gudsnuk does an excellent job of keeping this story about friendship and responsibility from becoming saccharine or tropey, instead treating every character with equal weight and relying on her uncanny knack for coming at a story from a slightly sideways perspective.

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Satoko and Nada, by Yupechika and Marie Nishimori

This was absolutely one of my most anticipated titles of the year, and man oh man did it hit a home run for me.  Upon initially receiving it I was uncertain, as it is laid out in 4-koma format, which I usually find cute but not particularly compelling.  And yet in this easy gag style, with simple illustrations, Satoko and Nada manages to be a profoundly intimate story of friendship between women and across cultures.  Nada is a college student from Saudi Arabia who is looking for a roommate.  Satoko, a student in the same school, has recently arrived from Japan and chooses to become that needed roommate.  Thus begins this tale of two people from very different backgrounds as they live together and learn all about each other and about their multicultural friends.  Warm-hearted, informative, and full of meme references, this manga really surprised me in the best possible way.  I want everyone to read it!

(Just an honorable mention here: I reread two of my absolute favorite series this year: Pet Shop of Horrors, by Matsuri Akino, and The Wallflower, by Tomoko Hayakawa.  One day, I’d like to write at length about both of these series, but as they’re old and hard to find, I opted against adding them to this list.  Look forward to an analysis of them one day, because I am very attached to them both!)

As you can see, I read a lot of very heartwarming stories by or about women this year.  I have been immensely impressed by the range in stories and creators I’ve had access to, and that’s something I want to see continue to grow year by year.  My reading list has been a bright spot in what has been a very tumultuous year otherwise (personally and in the world at large), and it gives me hope that more differing voices are being tapped to tell more and varied stories.

Looking forward to reading more in 2019!

 

What It Means To Manage A Comic Shop

There’s a Tweet going around lately by @Gigs_and_hills that asks folks to state the most common response they receive upon telling someone what they do for a living.  It’s been really interesting to see how wildly people misinterpret all kinds of jobs — and how I have also misinterpreted them!  And it brought up the response I’ve been getting a lot lately when I say that I manage a comic shop:

“You must have the coolest job in the world!  I bet you read comics all day!”

I know there’s no malice in comments like this, but that idea is so far from my reality that I wanted to give a bit of a breakdown of what, exactly, goes into comic shop management.  A lot of it will be the same as any other retail management position, but there are certainly some….quirks in the comics retail industry!  And I’m only going to be speaking from my personal experience, as the manager of a fairly small shop (three whole employees!) in a decently big city that has a glut of excellent comic shops.

Ordering

A good deal of my job revolves around ordering, whether that’s ordering brand-new books, or reordering books that we’ve sold within the past week.  I do the former once a month, and the latter at least once a week.  I place orders across multiple distributors, including Diamond Comics Distribution, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Hachette, Macmillian, and Baker & Taylor.  Occasionally, I also place orders with individual artists or wholesalers, which is a separate process that involves more of a time investment since there isn’t necessarily a system already in place to process those orders.

Once these orders come in, I’m sometimes the person who then has to check them in, pull copies for subscribers, and put them out on the shelves.  Which brings me to the next topic…

Maintaining Subscriber Pulls

I’m lucky in that I don’t do a ton of the unpacking and processing of our weekly Diamond shipments, but there is always a good deal of subscriber maintenance to deal with.  Adding new subscribers, physically filling the pulls, getting in touch with subscribers who have lapsed, sending comics to subscribers who live a little further afield, keeping track of special orders — these are tasks that my boss and I split, but in reality we could have one employee just doing this, that’s how much work it can be.

Organizing Sales and Events

One of the simultaneously most challenging and most rewarding things I do is organizing events.  We vend at a couple conventions, the largest of which is Anime Boston.  Preparation for this starts a couple months before the actual event with ordering.  We have to assess past sales at conventions, make some educated guesses about what’s going to sell well this year, and plan out table displays.  Once the orders are placed, they have to get processed as they come into the store, which I usually do because I am intimately aware of what we’re supposed to be getting, and because I need other folks to run the register and help customers.  I’m also the one who does a good deal of the packing, though I am glad to say that I have lots of strapping young folks to help move the boxes of about 10,000 manga to and from the store!

And that’s just the ordering and selling aspect!  We have a contractor (and friend of the store!) help with organizing the volunteers, figuring out meals, scheduling breaks, and making sure I drink water and get rest.  (Bless you, Jasmine, I could not do any of this without you!)

After the cons are over, there is the job of returning all those books that we are able to and don’t need in the store (this is a project I’m working on right now, in fact).  This process means paying close attention to the inventory as it comes and goes, which is somewhat easier when you’re already doing orders once a week!

Outside of the conventions, there are other events to organize: Free Comic Book Day, in-store signings, local outreach events, sponsorships, etc.  I don’t get to just be the paperwork jockey, I have to also serve as the face of the business in many instances.

The Day-To-Day

When I’m doing all these other tasks, I don’t have a separate office.  I’m doing all this at the front counter, which means that I also have the duties of anyone else in the store: I deal with customers, give recommendations, run the register, clean the store, run the social media, and all those other menial tasks that have to get done.  Of course, I don’t have to do all this alone, and I have excellent staff who help by alleviating some of these duties — as well as assisting me with some of the others mentioned above!  There’s plenty of work to go around for everyone.  (And scheduling that staff is also one of my duties!)

I’m not going to pretend that I never read while on the job.  At the end of my work week, when I’ve finished any major tasks and it doesn’t make sense to start a new project before I’m off for two days, I will definitely get some reading done.  This is partially pleasure since I obviously love comics, but this is also a part of my job!  I need to know what we’re selling in order to be able to recommend it.  Sometimes, I’m granted advance copies of books that I read during work hours so that I can decide whether or not we should be ordering it to begin with.  (And in some cases, I will advise other retailers stock those books in my monthly newsletter.)

I don’t want to crush any dreams here — I do genuinely enjoy my job!  I get to meet awesome people all the time, I get to help promote work that I care about, and I get to be part of a really diverse creative community.  But there is a blurred line between business and pleasure when you work in the entertainment industry.  My husband and I went to Montreal last weekend for our anniversary, and I had to drag him to the Drawn & Quarterly stores.  I went as a customer and a fan, but I found my comic shop manager brain yelling at the back of my head saying things like “check out this display, this is a good idea!” or “we already stock this, right?”  I read a lot for pleasure, but a good chunk of that reading is manga, which is very relevant to our shop in particular.  I have to be very careful about burning out or being overwhelmed by every aspect of my life being overtaken by my job.  It can be a challenge!

So in short: No, as a comic shop manager, I don’t get to read comics all day.  There’s a lot of labor involved in keeping a comic shop chugging along, especially in the age of the Internet.  And while not every comic shop employee will have to do all of these tasks, there’s a chance that they will have a hand in some of them, even if they’re not involved in management.  Unless you work for a large store with a lot of upper management, a shop will need all hands to balance as many plates as possible.  This is the nature of small business!

When all is said and done, I take pride in the work that I do, and I know that I’m good at it.  I think that’s perhaps more rewarding than being able to just read all day — though I honestly wouldn’t mind having more time for that, as well!

LadiesCon 2018, Women in Comics, and Community Engagement

This past weekend, I tabled for the store at LadiesCon, an annual event organized by the Ladies of Comicazi.  As can probably be surmised from the name, this community event (free and open to the public!) focuses on the many non-cisgender-men who work in comics in some capacity.  The featured guests this year were Marjorie Liu, Erica Henderson, Ming Doyle, and Kristen Gudsnuk.  I even got to be on two panels!  “Women In Comics Retail,” which I’ve been on a couple times before, and “Manga and the Women Who Make It,” which I debuted there with my good friend Juliet Kahn.

Here in the Boston area, we’re really spoiled when it comes to the comics community.  We have many excellent comic shops, all of whom staff women.  And not only do we have the incredible, and incredibly important, LadiesCon, but we also play host the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo (MICE), which is also family-friendly, free, and open to the public (and which this year is featuring, among others, the young reader powerhouse creators Vera Brosgol and Tillie Walden).

One of my favorite aspects of these shows is that they always remind me of the Artist’s Alley at an anime convention: full of passionate people of all genders, colors, and creeds who have come together to share their work with like-minded fans.  Anime cons have always been some of the queerest, most diverse spaces I’ve ever had the privilege to be a part of, and it’s very gratifying to see that kind of representation making itself known to the general, curious public.

Needless to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about the community aspect of comics lately.  To the outside observer, it can seem quite divisive — and it certainly can be!  I know how lucky I am and have been to encounter mostly kind, open-minded individuals in this space who trust my judgment and who believe in uplifting instead of shooting down.  I can’t overstate how important it has been for me to have friends within the comics community who have been able to share in my joys and commiserate when I encounter those aspects of comics that aren’t as pleasant.

In somewhat related news, for those of you who don’t follow my various social media maneuverings, I finally sent the first Manga Maven Monthly email, which you can find here.  The response to this project has been very positive, even when I was just making super-long Facebook posts in various retailer groups.  It’s very validating to have people you really respect, who have been working in comics retail a long time, sincerely thank you for your suggestions and talk about how they have positively influenced their businesses.  It’s been really great to feel that, if nothing else, here is at least one thing I know I’m doing well.  So thank you to everyone who has signed up!  I hope to keep giving you fruitful suggestions for a long time!

Monthly Manga Mailing

I have some exciting news to share with everyone today!  Part of my job is to advise fellow comics retailers on which manga they might be interested in stocking in their stores.  Because the demand for this service has gotten so high and is causing me to cross-post in several groups, I’ve decided to create a mailing list!  While it will be geared toward comic shop retailers, certainly anyone who would like to see my monthly thoughts on upcoming titles is welcome to sign up.  I just ask that everyone bear with me as I slowly learn how to use MailChimp to its fullest potential, haha.  The link to sign up is here, and I’ll be posting it in several locations over the course of today so that it reaches everyone who might want it!

In other news, I haven’t written much lately, but I assure you all that I’ve been reading a ton.  I’ve been on a bit of a shojo romcom kick lately; I read seven volumes of Waiting For Spring the other day, and have slowly been working my way through High School Debut.  I’m not sure why, but every now and then I just feel the need to read something sweet and positive, and shojo romances really fill that requirement for me.

My last post was a review of a middle reader graphic novel that isn’t a manga.  This doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned manga (obviously), but I do want to mention that I probably will be doing more non-manga reviews in the future.  I believe that middle reader and young adult graphic novels are among the best (and best-selling) graphic works right now, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention them, especially as so many of them have been influenced by manga and are being read alongside manga.  Media, after all, does not exist in a bubble.  Works for young audiences are important right now, creating many new readers and strengthening visual literacy.

And that’s all to report right now!  Just some little updates to tide you over until I post again — or until you sign up for my regular emails!

Eisner Follow-Up & Podcast Announcement

As I’m sure amny of you remember, when voting for the Eisner Awards opened up, I had some complaints about the manga nominees — not because they weren’t worthy, but because I didn’t think they really reflected what manga readers cared most about. I stand by everything I said in that post; I think a lot of improvements need to be made in regards to manga’s position in the Western comics world. However, on the whole I have to say that I’m very pleased with the results of the award ceremony.

Gengoroh Tagame’s My Brother’s Husband won the “Best Adaptation of International Material – Asia” category…and while all the nominees were outstanding in their own ways, I think this is the book I most wanted to win. (I didn’t vote for it; I wrote in Nagata Kabi’s My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, but I knew that winning would have been a long shot.) It’s not necessarily my favorite manga in the nominee lineup (I’m an enormous Junji Ito fan, so Shiver would probably claim that role), but I do think it is the most important, and the most indicative of a shift in the comics-reading demographic. Which is to say, queer folks have always been reading and making comics, and it’s nice to see that acknowledged.

In fact, many queer folks, women, and creators of color were acknowledged at this year’s award ceremony. I won”t go too deep into the non-manga awards here, but I was extremely pleased to see a lot of my favorite creators and books given the acknowledgement I never dreamed the comics industry would provide. I’ve never been happier to be proven wrong.

The Akira boxset won two awards, as well! Readers will probably note from my last post that I have a boxset of my very own, and I can’t possibly overstate how incredibly beautiful its presentation is. I don’t always agree with Kodansha’s printing choices (about half of their titles are oversize right now, which makes them hell to shelve), but this is one notable time where they did no wrong. I’m glad to see that it’s been in high enough demand that it’s gone to second print!

I think, though, that the highlight for me was to see Rumiko Takahashi, the most successful and one of the most influential women in comics, finally inducted into the Eisner Hall of Fame. As Deb Aoki, comics critic extraordinaire (@debaoki on Twitter!), mentioned: having some random American award probably isn’t that big a deal to Takahashi, a woman already festooned with awards, accolades, and a great deal of ongoing market value. But it is an important step for the often very Euro-centric or otherwise cloistered Western comics community to honor a mangaka — and a woman mangaka, at that. That she was a write-in winner warms my heart immensely. It’s exciting to note that Viz Media just announced they’ll be reprinting Urusei Yatsura, as well, so now a new generaton of fans can be similarly inspired by some of Takahashi’s early work!

Eisner stuff aside, I also wanted to mention that later today I’ll be recording content for the 200th episode of the Manga Machinations podcast! They approached me a couple months ago asking if I’d be willing to join them, and it’s been a lot of fun chatting back and forth and listening to some of their past work. They have had the opportunity to host translator Jocelyne Allen twice, and I highly recommend listening to those episodes if you haven’t already. You can find Manga Machinations on Twitter (@MangaMacPodcast) and on Tumblr (mangamachinations.tumblr.com). The 200th episode goes up tomorrow, Monday, July 23rd. I hope you’ll give it a listen; you’ll get a little bit of background about me, my job, and my feelings about josei and LGBTQ+ manga!

Remembering Akira

I don’t remember if it was spring or fall, but I remember that I was nine years old. Sara and I got off the bus as usual. She was staying over my house that afternoon, and she had brought a tape she had borrowed from her older brother, which she had seen at least some of already. She wanted me to see it, needed her best friend to have the same experience.

Up until that point, we had a passing understanding of anime. We watched Pokemon, and I had been a fan of Sailor Moon for years already. But as we sat there on the floor in the basement of my grandmother’s house, the coarse brown carpet biting into our hands as we leaned in, we knew that what we were watching was the same and yet…it was different.

We were probably too young to watch Akira. I think we knew that, too, because we kept worrying that every sound we heard was my grandmother about to descend the stairs as something truly horrific happened on screen. I didn’t have a concept of body horror, didn’t understand the affects of drug use, didn’t have any background in Japanese post-war anxieties or political climes. But even though it frightened and confused me, I loved Akira.

Time will elapse, and I will carry with me the knowledge that it’s a movie I love, but forget the particulars. And when I go to watch it again, I will be floored all over again. The swell of the gamelan soundtrack, the warmth of the animation, the gorgeous taillight trail…it makes me emotional for reasons I can’t always comprehend, though I suppose I am, at my core, a very emotional person, given to sentimentality.

And so the Akira film celebrates its very sentimental 30th anniversary. From all corners of the internet, all manner of film and animation fans are calling up their memories, lauding their favorite aspects of a film that could only be made in that time, in that place, and with those very specific people. For me, it’s the same: I can’t imagine having not seen Akira, and I don’t regret having seen it early in my life. Quite the contrary, I feel lucky to be able to experience it over and over again, as I age and mature, and as I come to learn new things about myself and about society.

…and I still have yet to finish the manga, so I guess I have a goal before the year is out!

On Recommending Comics

When the Preacher television series came out, I had customer after customer provide me with the fandom theatre of being shocked that I had never read it, and then immediately insisting I amend that as soon as possible. Putting aside the fact that I was a literal baby when Preacher was first running in single issues, it seemed so unfathomable to everyone that despite the fact that I was sitting behind a counter selling them their comics every week, I might not have taken part in this very specific rite of comics passage.

Preacher is not necessarily something I wouldn’t read; indeed, I think the Morgana I was in high school would be very interested in the violence and the symbolism of it (I say, having still not read it). But out of curiosity, I flipped through the first volume after getting enough pushback from folks, just to see what the fuss was about. In no short order, I saw amidst the pages someone getting their face peeled off.

Knowing nothing about me, scores of men (they were all men) told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to read this comic. Scores of men have told me to read Berserk, and not a single one of them have ever mentioned that their are depictions of sexual violence — I just found that out recently through a thread on Twitter. When these people have given me their “recommendations,” it has been more about them pushing their interests on me, than about considering what I might enjoy, or trying to convince me of their value while also alerting me to things I might not like about them. Who recommends graphic violence porn to a stranger! Jesus Christ, guys, get it together.

I have had customers who have confessed that their “friends” belittled them for not having engaged in certain media. Forcing, shaming, belittling…these are really, really ineffective ways to convince someone that what you’re recommending to them is worthwhile. How can they be expected to start, if they keep associating the title with guilt and pressure, and on their inherent “unworthiness” as a fan?

Coming up against my distaste for being told what to consume, I find myself in the position of getting paid to tell other people what to consume. Giving good recommendations isn’t easy. My initial desire is the same as everyone’s: to recommend the things that I love. I don’t think this is a bad gut instinct — something is enjoyable, and you want more people to experience that, and you want to support the creators and the publisher. That’s great! But what works for me isn’t necessarily going to work for everyone else. There’s a comic for everyone, but not every comic is for everyone.

This means I have to know how to talk about even the books I didn’t like, or that I haven’t read. I have to not use negative language about books I found boring or bad, because the person I’m helping might be looking for exactly that kind of thing. I have to try to figure out what a customer wants through asking endless questions, and there is nothing more frustrating than someone saying “oh, I’ll read anything!” (Especially when I then recommend ten different things and they turn every single one down!)

It is hard to know what people enjoy, even if youre familiar with their tastes. There are books that I thought I’d love that I just didn’t, so even for myself I can’t always pick ’em right! But I really, really think it’s important to be able to let go of the fact that not everyone is going to like the things you like, and that doesn’t make them a less good consumer of media. And when you’re really dead-set on giving a recommendation, it’s important to be able to give some insight into why it’s worth the time and effort, and maybe a caveat if there are some, uh, upsetting facets of it.

Basically, I want people to read comics, so I feel that it’s always best to be kind and cautious. Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but I’d love it if we were all a little more generous with our thoughts, and less concerned with checking off the boxes of cultural currency that allegedly make someone a “real fan.”