Hi there.

A difficult year has ended on a low note with the not unexpected but still very difficult passing of my father.

I’m going to give myself some time off, and I’ll see you all in 2012, which I’m hoping will be an improvement on 2011.



Upcoming 11/30/2011

There’s really only one item of interest to me on this week’s ComicList, but it makes the trip to the local comic shop worthwhile.

It’s the second volume of Nicolas de Crécy’s Salvatore, An Eventful Crossing, from NBM. Kate (The Manga Critic) Dacey and I discussed the first volume at some length and found it intriguing if a little bit unnerving. I’m looking forward to this one, even if it puts me a bit on edge in ways I can’t quite describe.

You can check out what my Manga Bookshelf colleagues are eagerly anticipating this week, and you can read our thoughts on some recent releases in a heaping helping of Bookshelf Briefs.


Upcoming 11/23/2011

Okay, so clearly this is not going to be a hugely productive week for me, blogging-wise. But I can still muster a look at the current ComicList.

It’s pretty easy, since there isn’t a lot of new material. The highlight is Natsume Ono’s Tesoro (Viz). Here’s a bit of what I had to say about it in my review:

I can see why Viz saved Tesoro for last. It’s charming, but it benefits from having a larger view of Ono’s body of work. It contains some of her earlier short works for magazines like IKKI and some self-published stories, and I can see it gaining a non-manga audience. It’s very much in an indie-comics vein, especially if we’re talking about recent indie comics where the creators seem to feel freer to indulge in some genial whimsy.

You can find links to several other reviews at the post repository for the recently concluded Manga Moveable Feast on Ono’s work, hosted by Manga Widget.

Other than that, it’s pretty much all Sailors, all the time, which is the focus of the current Manga Bookshelf Pick of the Week.


Undiscovered Ono

I keep meaning to write up a license request for two of the comics that Natsume Ono has created for Kodansha’s Morning 2, Danza, which ran for one volume, and Coppers, which is ongoing. They’re dramas about police officers in New York, which is certainly unexpected subject matter for this particular creator, and I’ve enjoyed lots of comics that were originally published in Morning magazines. The thing is that, by most accounts, they aren’t very good, at least by Ono’s standards.

Here’s what Khursten Santos said about them in her marvelous overview of Ono’s work:

Danza is a collection of stories although she eventually focused on two NYPD detectives before eventually dedicating Coppers to an entire squad. Her venture into this copland ain’t no NYPD blues. It’s simpler, if not, less dramatic than that. I would have to admit that these two are the weakest of her works as her brand of storytelling kills the excitement in police stories. It’s still a good read. Just not as great as the others. If you sincerely love her sense of melodrama, then you might find some fun in Danza and Coppers.

Personally, I’ll read anything by Ono, and even lower-tier Ono is still pretty awesome. But if I’m going to devote my energies to begging for more of her work in English, I’d be more inclined to bend my energies towards her Basso work.

She started a new series in Shogakukan’s IKKI called Futugashira, but there’s next to no information available on that one. I’m quite intrigued by what little I’ve seen of her other ongoing, an historical drama called Tsuratsura Waraji that’s another Morning 2 title. But if I were to pick one non-yaoi Ono title that I really, really want to see, it would be Nigeru Otoko.

It ran for a single volume in Ohta Shuppan’s Manga Erotics F, which is a constant source of surprises, mostly in the “I can’t believe this comic ran in the same magazine as that comic” vein that makes me love a magazine. (Hi, Comic Beam!) The description makes it sound like a moody, grown-up fantasy, which is very much in my comfort zone. And it reinforces Ono’s standing as the queen of the Fifth Genre prom, so it’s hard to see how something could go really badly wrong in a single volume.


Re-flipped: not simple

I’m digging into the Flipped archives again. This one came out just as Natsume Ono’s work was starting to be licensed in English. It focuses primarily on her first licensed work, which generated some mixed reaction, though I loved it.

I’ve given up on prognostication. Experience has demonstrated that I’m usually too optimistic, and looking back at my predictions makes me realize that they’re more in the line of affirmations than realistic expectations. I will indulge in one, though: by the end of 2010, a lot more people will be aware of the work of Natsume Ono than they were when the year began.

To be honest, I’d never heard her name at the beginning of 2009. My first glimpse of her work came through a random copy of Kodansha’s Morning 2, which is serializing Ono’s Coppers. I remember thinking that those pages didn’t look much like anything else in the magazine. It took me a while to connect the creator of Coppers with my next encounter with Ono.

That happened at Viz Media’s online IKKI anthology, which serializes chapters of Ono’s House of Five Leaves. It’s one of those series that on first glance leave you not quite sure what you just read, though in a very pleasant way. The opening chapters leave the doors of possibility wide open, and subsequent installments don’t so much shut them as fill in the details of those possibilities.

It’s about an out-of-work samurai, Akitsu, who becomes entangled with a gang of kidnappers. Akitsu doesn’t resemble the standard manga samurai in physicality or disposition, lithe and diffident instead of sturdy and aggressive. It’s easy to see why he’s unemployed, but it’s enticingly unclear why gangster Yaichi lures Akitsu into his circle. It could be that Akitsu is easy to manipulate and the last person you’d expect of ulterior motives, or it could be simple, unexpected fondness. Yaichi might merely like to have Akitsu around.

Ono seems entirely comfortable with leaving readers to guess where things might be headed in terms of event and even intent, though I always have the sense that things are moving in interesting directions. Her work seems both confident and restrained. It also seems just slightly askew of what one might expect when one considers demographics like seinen (comics for adult men), josei (for adult women) or yaoi (male-male romance, which Ono has created under the name “Basso”). So it makes sense that the magazines that have featured her work – Morning 2, Shogakukan’s IKKI, the late Penguin Shobou’s Comic SEED! – seem less designed to cater to a specific demographic than to simply publish an interesting variety of comics by accomplished creators.

The first Ono title to see print in translation, not simple from Viz, arrives this week, and the publisher has posted the first chapter online. Comics creator, editor and critic Shaenon K. Garrity has described the book as “scary good,” and I’m in complete agreement. I think it compares favorably to one of the most acclaimed books of 2009, David Small’s Stitches: A Memoir (W.W. Norton). Like Small’s autobiography, not simple explores the hideous consequences of parental cowardice and cruelty, and, like Stitches, it’s constructed and paced with admirable precision and craft. As was the case in Stitches, I’m reluctant to describe the plot in too much detail, as a great deal of pleasure is derived in the timing with which Ono reveals the underlying facts of her characters’ lives.

The book follows a young Australian man named Ian, barely more than a boy, really, as he searches for his older sister, the only bright point in his grim experience with family life. Along the way, he meets a writer, Jim, who’s taken with Ian’s story both for its inherent pathos and for its narrative possibilities – he wants to know how Ian’s story comes out at least partly because he wants to tell it. Ian’s life and Jim’s novel intersect and overlap, and the story-within-a-story elements aren’t always entirely successful, but Jim’s mixture of sympathy and self-interest give Ian’s tragedies a needed edge and the possibility of at least a little remove on the part of the reader. One of the recurring criticisms I saw for Stitches was that it was just so depressing, a quality compounded by the fact that the events it portrayed actually happened. In not simple, Ono is playing with the idea of tragedy as an entertainment beyond merely presenting a tragic series of events. It’s an intriguing extra element, even if it isn’t seamlessly applied.

Ono doesn’t engage in the kind of experimental illustration that’s sprinkled throughout Small’s work, but her drawings are striking, characterized with a kind of crude fragility that supports the tone and content of her story. Like everything else about not simple, its look is deceptively… well… simple. Fans of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Lost at Sea (Oni Press) would feel very much at ease with a cartoonish style invested with emotional depth and urgency.

People who have sampled House of Five Leaves, which is scheduled for print release in April of this year, might be surprised that not simple was drawn by the same creator. The former has a lean elegance that’s really in contrast to the more stylized look of the latter. I’m fond of both styles for their individual virtues and for the fact that they both come from the same pen. It’s exciting to see that Ono’s versatility in terms of content and tone extends to her work as an illustrator.

There’s just so much to admire about Ono’s work – its variety, its uniqueness, the level of talent it suggests. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hope that she becomes one of those creators whose popularity transcends the audience specifically interested in comics from Japan and those who are interested in well-made comics in general. Her work seems to have transcended any specific demographic in Japan, and I believe it will here.


Upcoming 11/16/2011

I feel vaguely like Tom Sawyer, sitting back and watching other people do my work for me, at least in terms of an evaluation of this week’s ComicList. Instead of hacking out my own rundown of the new arrivals, I’ll simply point out this week’s Manga Bookshelf Pick of the Week post. By now, you all know how I feel about Manga Moveable Feast star Natsume Ono’s Tesoro (Viz), and you’re only a click away from seeing why Melinda Beasi and Kate Dacey share my enthusiasm for new volumes of Takehiko Inoue’s Real and Hisae Iwaoka’s Saturn Apartments.

You’re also only a click away from this week’s round of Bookshelf Briefs. This week’s theme, at least for me, is finding that I quite enjoyed two books in spite of their clear intent to pander to specific audiences that don’t generally include me. (Those would be the second volume of A Certain Scientific Railgun from Seven Seas and the first volume of Mr. Tiger and Mr. Wolf from Digital Manga.)

But wait! There’s more! The Manga Bookshelf Battle Robot also assembled for a new installment of Going Digital, in which I beg iPad users to give Oishinbo a chance.


Only Serious About You, Vol. 1

I suspect that Kai Asou might have been indulging in little irony when she titled Only Serious About You (Digital Manga Publishing), as her storytelling is extremely conscientious. She fleshes out every beat of the story, which makes it a little slow to start, but it proves to be a very rewarding strategy as the plot moves along.

Oosawa is a single father who works as a cook at a pub. He juggles his demanding job with the needs of his young daughter, Chizu. Yoshioka is a regular customer, a gay guy with a string of exes who can’t quite seem to entirely let go or fully commit. Oosawa finds Yoshioka’s romantic life baffling and his flirting irksome, but Yoshioka steps up when Chizu gets sick. He takes father and daughter into his home, and the visit is prolonged when Oosawa comes down with a fever himself.

There’s a degree of implausibility to the set-up, and I’ve never quite understood the dire import the Japanese seem to place on the common cold. Still, it forces Oosawa and Yoshioka into close proximity, and it allows Asou to explore Yoshioka’s true nature, which is much more generous and sensitive than his behavior in the pub suggested.

There’s also the pesky “suddenly possibly gay” gambit that crops up a lot in this category, but Asou’s meticulous approach helps smooth this over. This volume is much more about Oosawa getting to know Yoshioka as a person than it is about an instantaneous, inexplicable attraction. Both guys are fairly guarded for different reasons, and it’s very sweet to see Oosawa start to want to figure out what makes Yoshioka tick, then build on his understanding of his surprisingly dependable and compassionate new friend.

Readers might also wonder why Asou would place so much trust in a stranger, especially when it comes to the care of his daughter, but Asou makes that fairly easy to set aside. Oosawa is a very dedicated father, and the rendering of the challenges faced by a single parent feels very authentic. Low key as the story generally is, there’s a real sharpness to Asou’s portrayal of how one small thing can throw Oosawa’s life out of whack. It allows the reader to share in both his anxiety when things go wrong and his relief when thing work out.

The art is generically attractive. Asou clearly favors the lanky body type, but it’s easy to distinguish one character from another. (This isn’t always true, not just in yaoi but in just about any type of manga that features a large, primarily male cast.) She does a nice job with body language and day-to-day activities that help ground the work. There are also some funny little visual grace notes that any mangaka should have in her or his toolkit.

Asou gets little moments so right. In the beginning, this feels too scrupulous and mundane. As things progress, and as readers get to know the characters better, these articulated bits of life gain more weight. By the halfway point, I found myself smiling in recognition or indulging in a little wistfulness at how things were progressing. It’s quite a lovely experience – not particularly urgent and certainly not stylized, but definitely immersive in a very gentle way. I’m really looking forward to seeing how things turn out for these characters.



It makes me a little wistful to think that Tesoro is probably the last work by Natsume Ono that Viz will debut, at least for a while. Viz was responsible for introducing English-language readers to Ono’s work, at least in licensed form, and they’ve provided a steady supply since not simple arrived at the beginning of 2010. There’s more House of Five Leaves to come, which is reassuring, but Viz has pretty much run through her catalog of works that ran in Shogakukan’s IKKI or Ohta Shuppan’s Manga Erotics F.

She’s got a number of titles in progress, mostly for Kodansha’s Morning magazines, but Viz has almost never published a Kodansha title. Kodansha itself seems to be reluctant to publish its own seinen works, so the best hope of Ono fans would probably be Vertical. As for the yaoi titles she created under the name BASSO, I have no idea who might publish those, though perhaps Viz’s new boys’-love line might be a possible home.

I can see why Viz saved Tesoro for last. It’s charming, but it benefits from having a larger view of Ono’s body of work. It contains some of her earlier short works for magazines like IKKI and some self-published stories, and I can see it gaining a non-manga audience. It’s very much in an indie-comics vein, especially if we’re talking about recent indie comics where the creators seem to feel freer to indulge in some genial whimsy.

Readers who are familiar with the rather leisurely pace Ono adopts for her longer works might wonder how she manages a smaller number of pages. (Ono herself expresses skepticism about her abilities in this vein, though mangaka rarely sound confident in their author notes.) Given her facility for small, finely articulated moments, she proves to be a natural at short stories. There’s a lot of charming material in Tesoro, and while the tone tends to be genial, there’s a surprising amount of variety on display.

My favorite entry is “Senza titolo 1,” which dips into Ono’s beloved well of grumpy older Italian men. A sophisticated lady helps a doctor friend make his way home on a night when he’s had too much to drink. She learns the source of his distress, and, while he’s helped her in his capacity as a psychologist, she discovers that they share some of the same anxieties. It’s lovely and sad, and it’s probably the most sleekly drawn piece in the collection.

Other charmers here include the third of “Three Short Stories About Bento,” which is spare in its details but very emotionally potent in an understated way. It focuses clearly and compassionately on a parent-child relationship, which is also familiar Ono territory, and she revisits that ground a few times in this collection. In the “Froom family” shorts, she introduces a father who tries to carve out special time for his son that will give the kid a break from his bossy older sisters. I liked the quirky, chatty “Padre” strips about a baker with three demanding children better than “Senza titolo #6,” where we see the kids as somewhat dysfunctional adults.

Speaking of dysfunctional adults, or at least near-adults, the contingent that found not simple a bit too much will probably see its seeds in “Eva’s Memory.” I personally loved not simple, but I can look at “Eva’s Memory” and see justification for the accusations of contrivance and maudlin melodrama. “Senza titolo #5” is flawed in some of the same ways, but it’s on the sweeter side, so it’s easier to take.

On the whole, it’s a wonderful sampler of a lot of Ono’s core sensibilities. There are many characters here who have reason to be sad or discontent trying to focus on their pleasures and blessings. There’s a lot of eating and aimless chatter. And there are a lot of nicely observed moments, especially among messy, loving families. If you like Ono, Tesoro is essential, and if you’re unfamiliar with her work, it’s a good, gentle introduction that gives you a sense of her range.


MMF: On Ono

Alexander Hoffman has launched the latest Manga Moveable Feast over at Manga Widget, an examination of the fetching and varied comics of Natsume Ono. I’ve got a few pieces in the pipeline for this week, but I thought I’d point to a few things I’ve already written:

Can’t wait to see what everyone has to say about this versatile, very distinct creator!



Thanks to everyone who voted in this month’s Previews poll. A Devil and Her Love Song (Viz) and Durarara!! (Yen Press) pretty much tied, and plenty of people suggested that Devil is something I should read even without the prompting of democracy, so I’ll just go for both. I love it when a plan comes together, and when a plan falls apart in interesting and useful ways.

Speaking of plans, Alexander (Manga Widget) Hoffman is gearing up for the next Manga Moveable Feast. This installment focuses on the work of Natsume Ono. I believe I may have expressed a fondness for her work once or twice. I’ll have to check my files.

And, on the subject of Manga Moveable Feasts, I like it when the events cast a spotlight on a specific creator like Rumiko Takahashi and Fumi Yoshinaga. So, for this week’s random question, I’ll ask which mangaka you’d like to see at the center of a future feast?

Osamu Tezuka seems like an ideal candidate, because so much of his work has been licensed and translated and lots of it comes in affordable, one-volume chunks. I kind of suspect that his individual works are so different and dense that it might take a month-long feast to cover everything. Yuu Watase would offer a reasonable amount of variety, but some of her series are so very, very long that it might pose a barrier to participation. I’d actually really enjoy a Junko Mizuno feast, since she’s such a distinctive artist, and it might poke Last Gasp into publishing another volume of Little Fluffy Gigolo Pelu, because I loved the first volume like I would my own emotionally disturbed child.