The Favorites Alphabet: A

Welcome to the first installment of the Favorites Alphabet, where the Manga Bookshelf battle robot glances through our respective libraries to pick a favorite manga title from each letter of the alphabet, whenever possible. We’re trying to stick with books that have been licensed and published in English, but we recognize that the alphabet is long, so we’re keeping a little wiggle room in reserve.

“A” is for…

After School Nightmare | By Setona Mizushiro | Go!Comi — Gender-bending is not unusual in manga, but actual exploration of gender is, and that’s just one of several refreshing aspects of this unfortunately out-of-print manga. It’s also a story about teenagers that uses school-mandated shared nightmares as a way of forcing students to display and face their own worst fears right in front of each other. Is it creepy? Yes. It also serves as a pretty accurate metaphor for my own thankfully-distant teenage hell, and I expect I’m not alone there. Though the series’ dream setting places it soundly in the realm of the surreal, that doesn’t make it any less resonant. After all, where do our own fears feel more real than in our fevered dreams? For more about this series from smarter writers than I, look to Jason Thompson  and (of course) David Welsh. – Melinda Beasi

Antique Bakery | By Fumi Yoshinaga | Digital Manga Publishing — Ostensibly a slice-of-life tale about four men working together in a bakery, Antique Bakery offers more dramatic surprises than one might expect. Early on, charismatic gay pastry chef Ono and cluelessly lovable Chikage emerge as favorites, but as we learn more about the bakery’s proprietor, Tachibana, the more fascinating he becomes. An ordeal suffered in his past has profoundly informed the man he is in the present, and when readers realize the truth of what’s been going on all along, Yoshinaga’s mastery suddenly becomes even more apparent. Yes, there are lighthearted moments in this series. Yes, there is a fun cast of characters who grow and change from working together. But most of all, there is Tachibana’s unforgettable story. – Michelle Smith

Apocalypse Meow | By Motofumi Kobayashi | ADV Manga — Apocalypse Meow does for the Vietnam War what Maus does for World War II, using animal surrogates to re-enact period conflict. In this case, rabbits stand in for American soldiers, and cats stand in for the Vietnamese, while the Chinese (pandas) and Russians (bears) observe from the sidelines. Author Motofumi Kobayashi is clearly a military enthusiast: every volume is studded with sidebars describing combat tactics and weaponry, as well as lovingly drawn maps of troop movement. Yet Kobayashi doesn’t lose sight of the human cost of war; watching a trio of bunnies caught in a brutal fire fight makes the horror of combat fresh and unsettling, especially for readers who have been desensitized to the conflict through years of watching movies and documentaries about Vietnam. The series is long out of print, but enterprising (and patient) readers can find inexpensive copies on eBay. – Katherine Dacey

Aria (and its prequel Aqua) | By Kozue Amano | ADV Manga/Tokyopop — A cynical person might say that what Aria really shows is that slice-of-life, look at the scenery manga with no moe schoolgirls in it will die a financial death here in North America.  But what we saw of this series just made me love it all the more.  For a science-fiction utopia fantasy world, Aria is so relaxed and sedate.  It’s not afraid to devote 30 pages to simply walking to a store in the rain, or visiting a friend.  And as the series goes on, the cast of characters that form the core group grow and change, some more startlingly than others.  It’s a classic example of the sort of series you read and feel a smile on your face and a warmth in your heart.  It ran for a total of 14 volumes between both series in Japan, of which 8 saw publication here (both of Aqua and 6 of Aria’s 12).  Sadly, if you want more, I suspect you’ll have to learn Japanese.  It’s now failed to sell with two different North American publishers, and its Japanese company, Mag Garden, is the *only* major manga publisher with no digital initiative – even Square Enix is striking out on its own, separate from JManga.  It’s a shame, as I’d love everyone to see the end of this. – Sean Gaffney

Astral Project | By Garon Tsuchiya and Syuji Takeya | CMX — Being able to describe this series as “a slice-of-life supernatural mystery” makes me enormously pleased, even though it isn’t by any means comprehensive. A young man’s sister has committed suicide, and he tries to make sense of her death. Along the way, he learns to project his spirit out of his body and encounters other astral travelers who change his perspective on life. Beyond his emotional trauma, we also learn of a decidedly odd government conspiracy that gives Tsuchiya a platform for all kinds of extremely pointed satire aimed at contemporary culture. Astral Project is really, really odd, though it’s ultimately very involving and likeable. It’s further proof that Enterbrain’s Comic Beam publishes some of the most unusual, interesting comics Japan has to offer. It may be difficult to find copies of this four-volume series, as CMX didn’t exactly flood the market with copies the first time, but it’s worth the hunt. – David Welsh

What starts with “A” in your Favorites Alphabet?