I very much like the way this page came out. But it's not like you can ever go wrong with white-hot juggling action.
I'm still selling original Narbonic strips for $25 each to raise money for Lea Hernandez, whose house burned down. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want one.
Also, it's time for another installment of Overlooked Manga Festival!
I've now been working at Viz long enough that I can frequently tell where a given manga first appeared by flipping through it. Manga from Shonen Jump are easiest to identify, because SJ keeps the tightest editorial reins of any manga magazine; every series reflects the central themes of "friendship, effort, and victory," although obviously these ideals are expressed a little differently in Naruto and, say, Death Note. There are other elements that mark an SJ manga, like the inclusion of fanservice for the ladies; SJ has a huge female readership, and in a recent survey it was the most popular manga magazine for girls, beating out all the shojo magazines (i.e., the ones actually aimed at female readers). So that's why Naruto and Sasuke accidentally kiss in the first volume of Naruto.
But what really disinguishes an SJ manga is the pace. Shonen Jump manga do not stop for breath or pause for reflection--not for more than a page or two, anyway. The characters explode with energy and keep their eyes on the prize. The story plunges ever onward, pushing you to keep reading, to find out what happens next. SJ is the bestselling manga magazine in Japan, and it stays that way by keeping readers on the edges of their seats. An SJ manga is a sleekly-engineered page-turner.
Today's overlooked manga doesn't run in Shonen Jump. It's a feature in the rival magazine Shonen Sunday. And thank goodness for that.
I can usually recognize a Shonen Sunday manga, too. It's the magazine in which most of Rumiko Takahashi's manga first appeared, and the legacy of Urusei Yatsura, Ranma 1/2, and Inu-Yasha looms large in SS's offerings. The stories are often fantasy or sci-fi adventure, as in Shonen Jump, but they tend to be...gentler, somehow. There are more episodic adventures in the sitcom mold, rather than massive quest arcs. There's a lot of focus on character development and daily life. There's a lot of comedy (well, sometimes...I'm not calling Project ARMS a laugh riot), and the comedy is less slapsticky, more character-based. The dominant art style is Takahashian: very polished, very clean, very appealing, very easy to adapt into anime.
A lot of these manga suffer in the American market, I think, because the stories tend to be less urgent and addictive. In Japan, they appear first as features in a weekly magazine, so there's time for the readers to get to know and like the characters. Once you're into the story, reading a new installment is like tuning in to a favorite TV show, or visiting old friends.
I did script rewrites on the first few volumes of Kekkaishi, and I got attached to it. Now I pick up each new volume as it comes out. The premise sounds like something that could be developed into a pulse-pounding adventure/horror series, but that's not the way the manga plays out. It's a little quieter, a little quirkier, and, at least to my mind, a lot more interesting.
So. "Kekkaishi" means, basically, "barrier master." Yoshimori, our hero, is a kekkaishi in training: he's learning "barrier magic," which involves creating little cube-shaped forcefields around things. As usual, it's much easier if I just let a penguin explain things for me.
Yoshimori is descended from a long line of kekkaishi who have, for centuries, defended a sacred site that radiates supernatural power. Ghosts, demons, and similar troublemakers are attracted to the site, where they feed off its energies and become immensely powerful. Also, it's now the site of Yoshimori's school. So every night he patrols the school grounds, looking for monsters. Also, he has a demon ghost dog. This all makes perfect sense in manga.
Tokine, the girl next door, is also a kekkaishi. They work together, they're rivals, he has a giant crush on her, she's permanently scarred from an accident he caused when they were third-graders, you know the drill.
What I like about Kekkaishi is that the whole defending-the-sacred-site plot quickly falls out of focus and becomes a backdrop for all kinds of episodic, mostly character-driven adventures: funny stories, creepy stories, tragic stories. The characters have unexpected quirks and undiscovered layers. Take, for example, Yoshimori's overriding dream:
Fortunately, he eventually meets the ghost of a pastissier who sympathizes with his dream of someday making a castle-shaped cake big enough to live in. The pastissier cannot rest in peace because his last word was "cabbage." And so on.
(Incidentally, is it me, or are all manga about baking awesome? Yakitate Japan? Awesome. Antique Bakery? SUPER AWESOME.)
There's a larger plot arc, but it develops pretty slowly. Eventually, you learn more about the kekkaishi and the "shadow organization" running them, as well as important overlooked details like the Yoshimori's absent big brother. The manga builds a whole universe around itself, but it takes its time.
There's an inventiveness to Kekkaishi that I really like. Creator Yellow Tanabe keeps coming up with ingenious new uses for the kekkai powers, not to mention simple, strong designs for demons and ghosts. This possessed teacher is nicely creepy:
And seriously, how can you not love this guy?
So I'm enjoying Kekkaishi. In an easygoing, laid-back kind of way. Which, frankly, I need sometimes.