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!

February Favorites

Time for something new! I’m going to start trying to round up some of my favorite comic reads at the end of each month. These won’t necessarily be things that came out the month in question (though I do try to keep up when I can), but anything I’ve managed to get my hands on that I feel is worth a mention. I read a lot, so I’m going to have to figure out how to limit my choices, but hopefully with time will come clarity!

I will say, first off, that this has been an…interesting month. I still feel so new to the freelance writing world, but I do think that things are coming together nicely, and I’m getting to a point where I can start challenging myself with how much work I take on. I also lost my cat, Mia, on February 12th. She was quite old, and her decline was very rapid. While she was sick, I spent a good deal of my time attending to her; after her death, there was a lot of time where I was just too miserable to feel like I wanted to do much of anything, let alone read. Still, a visit to Comicopia did help lift my spirits considerably, and while I have to be a little bit more judicious in my purchases right now, I was able to bring home some good new material.

I am also about to spend five days with my family while James is away on business, which is why I’m getting this out before the true end of the month. I suspect I will be too busy doing things with my mom and trying to keep up with my writing work to read too many more comics. But I wanted to give this segment a try, anyway, so I’ve decided to work with what I’ve got.

So without further ado, my picks for the month!

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Magical Beatdown
, Volume 1, by Jenn Woodall — published by Silver Sprocket

This slim little issue does one of my favorite things: It combines a love of the ultra-femme concept of the magical girl and mixes it generously with a hyper-violence that is both gross and cathartic at the same time. I think there’s a lot to be said about women enjoying and creating violent content, and some day I hope to talk about it more in-depth. But for now, I want to recommend the excellent pastel gore-fest revenge fantasy that is Magical Beatdown, because sometimes you just wanna go to the arcade without having to deal with losers! I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the second installment.

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House of Penance
, by Peter J. Tomasi, Ian Bertram, and Dave Stewart — published by Dark Horse Comics

Speaking of gore-fests, this standalone graphic novel is not for the faint of heart or stomach. The Winchester mansion in San Jose, California, is famous for it’s staircases that lead to nowhere, its doors that open onto nothing but air, and the nagging suspicion that it is not entirely empty. House of Penance is an exploration of Sarah Winchester’s mental state as she commissions the building of this strange domicile while grappling with the grief of losing her daughter and her husband, and the guilt of inheriting the wealth from a company whose business is murder. I’m always down for a strong anti-gun message, personally, and there is no holding back here as Sarah is confronted relentlessly by the victims of her in-laws’ firearm empire. Ian Bertram’s art is eerie and textured, Sarah especially portrayed with bug-like eyes that can see more than the men working around her. Dave Stewart’s incredible colors compliment Bertram’s lines beautifully, and his use of bright, vibrant blood red is very effective.

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Shion: Blade of the
 Minstrel, by Yu Kinutani — published by VIZ Media (out of print)

I came upon this volume completely by accident, while I was still working at Comicopia. It was hidden away in storage, in a long box full of old single issue comics, many of which were single issue manga, from way back when everything was flipped and companies tried selling manga like Western single-issue comics. I was drawn to its striking cover and detailed artwork, so I brought it home. That had to have been nearly two years ago, as I had put it into a comic box and promptly forgotten it. I dug it out recently while I was doing some organizing, and I resolved to finally read it.

And honestly, I was stunned. This little volume is so extraordinarily different from any manga that is being licensed and published today. It wouldn’t be seen as marketable, probably, but I’m so glad that VIZ took a chance on it back in 1991, because it was a pleasure to read. The book is split into two stories that follow a mysterious minstrel who must first take his revenge on a monster who wronged him and his family, and then must take up a legendary sword to fulfill his destiny. That one sentence seems like straightforward fantasy, and in many ways that’s what Shion is; as an essay at the back of the volume explains, it is a classic hero arc seen in many fairy tales and epics. But it’s so gorgeously textured in its artwork, and for me it invoked the same feelings as Vampire Hunter D and classic Jim Henson works, especially The Dark Crystal. It’s creative and beautiful, and I’d love to see what Kinutani did after this work. Worth hunting down if you are able!

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My Solo Exchange Diary
, Volume 2, by Nagata Kabi — published by Seven Seas Entertainment

In many ways, there’s not much I can say that I haven’t said before, in various spaces, about Nagata Kabi’s autobiographical work. Of the three volumes she has out from Seven Seas right now, I think this one was my favorite, even though much of it was spent talking about her time in the hospital. I appreciate, more than ever, her honesty, especially as she realizes how her mental state had prevented her from understanding how much her family actually loves her and wants what’s best for her. She continues to struggle throughout the volume, but it is evident that she’s repairing her relationships and learning, slowly, how to better communicate her pain so that she’s not suffering alone. I know that many people have been critical of her constant self-destruction, but to that end I just have to say…it is evident those people have never struggled with serious mental illness, or really known anyone who has. What Kabi is going through is not logical, it is not easily navigated, and her honesty and willingness to expose herself like she this has surely had a positive effect on others who have felt similarly isolated, self-destructive, and hurt. I continue to send her only the kindest, gentlest, most positive thoughts as she works on overcoming her pain. It’s a hard road, and she’s been working at it for a long, long time. I hope she’s able to find some peace soon.

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All My Darling Daughters
, by Fumi Yoshinaga — published by VIZ Media

Fumi Yoshinaga is one of those creators whose work I always know I’ll enjoy, but who also manages to completely exceed my expectations every single time. So was the case with All My Darling Daughters, a standalone volume that explores various relationships between people in a friend group, with special emphasis on the one between Yukiko and her mother, Mari, who has married a much younger man. Yoshinaga has such a sensitive touch with her characters that I find myself sympathizing even with those who in a different author’s hands, I would absolutely hate. It is an incredible skill to express the nuances of humanity, and Yoshinaga is extraordinarily good at it. I felt especially drawn to the last story in the collection, which dives into Mari’s antagonistic relationship with her own mother (Yukiko’s grandmother). Mari hates her mother for having been unnecessarily cruel about her appearance while she was growing up, not realizing that her mother was trying, in her own imperfect way, to protect her daughter from becoming reliant on her good looks. I was so strongly reminded of the dynamics between the women in my own family, the dynamics between my mother and my grandmother, and the increased awareness I have lately of how heavy motherhood can be. “A mother is an imperfect woman,” Yukiko realizes, and it is a perfect underscore to a book full of imperfect people who are just trying to do the right thing.

Looking back, it seems I’ve read a lot of very different books this month, but there are certain themes that run throughout. A lot of introspection, explorations of mental health (both real and fictional), and a little bit of violence and some adventure to balance things out. I like the micro-review format because I can fit several recommendations into a post at once, and I am not liable to give too much away. I hope this proves useful, and I look forward to following up again next month with some more excellent reads!