Shaenon K. Garrity (shaenon) wrote,
Shaenon K. Garrity

Overlooked Manga Festival Special Event!

No new Smithson this week; Brian has a family emergency to deal with. He did, however, put up a sweet sketch of Darryl O'Doyle, everyone's favorite commissured Irish poet. Well, favorite of everyone except the characters plotting to kill him, I guess.

There is, however, a new installment of The Chronicles of William Bazillion, wherein Wiener does his name proud.

And today I'm pleased to present a very special Overlooked Manga Festival Special Event! This one's long but awesome...

My good friend Jason Thompson has appeared here before, providing a guest OMF for the manga 888. Now he's returned with rock-star credentials. Jason's cinderblock-sized book Manga: The Complete Guide, for which I was fortunate enough to write a few reviews, hits bookstores next week (October 9!). If you'd like to learn more about Jason's horrifying descent into madness and paranoia while reading all the manga ever published in English, you can read this in-depth interview with him in this month's online edition of The Comics Journal. The interview was conducted by the very capable and handsome Andrew Farago.

Anyway, Jason has read all the manga ever published in English, and he's agreed to apply his vast knowledge to writing this week's Overlooked Manga Festival Special Event. So without any further ado, here's a whole bunch of bad manga!


The Top Ten Best Worst Manga: Part One
By Jason Thompson

I love reading good manga, but bad manga can be fun too. Truly bad manga are in some ways rarer and more precious than merely mediocre manga; manga which provoke extreme reactions, even bad reactions, are more interesting than manga which even the artist forgot about five minutes after drawing them. As Shaenon has already noted, in 2002 I did a feature for PULP magazine called "Manga Hell," in which I capped off several years of excruciatingly mean-spirited manga reviews by listing off all the worst manga I had encountered. Now, five years later, what are the new worst manga -- the most JUSTIFIABLY overlooked manga?

Today's manga market is totally different than the market of five years ago. Wal-Mart-friendly shonen manga are some of the bestselling books in America. Shojo and Boys' Love are booming. Meanwhile, cheesy T&A-fests like the work of Satoshi Urushihara have dwindled in presence, and the number of awful anime and video-game tie-in titles--books like Medabots, Nightwarriors, many of the Gundam manga, etc. -- has gone down. But other kinds of bad manga are on the rise, and I've had to read a lot of them lately.

In this article, I'm going to list 10 manga which are all awful in different ways; some titles from the past, some from the present. In the interests of fairness, they're all original series; none of them are spin-offs of pre-existing anime, video games, light novels or live-action. These are not mediocre manga. These are bad manga, albeit, in some cases, ones which may be fun to read. These, then, are my 10 Best Worst Manga, in no particular order. Read 'em, disagree, agree, flame me if you want to. I just flamed these manga, after all. In fact, in Manga Hell the flames are nice and toasty... downright comfortable, if you're in the right frame of mind.

10. Bomber Girl

One of the dark secrets of manga publishing is: Japanese licensors will sometimes pressure (or force) their American side to translate a certain manga simply to stroke the ego of the artist. In some cases, this is a blessing for fans because it's a really good but uncommercial manga which would have little chance of being translated for purely monetary reasons; in other cases, it's like when the boss is visiting and everyone has to kiss up to his spoiled idiot son. Of course, if Shueisha went up to you or me and grabbed your arm in the street and said "You have to translate KIMENGUMI!" then as a private citizen you would be free to say "No! That's a horrible idea!" and pull your arm away. But if you were, say, a partially owned subsidiary of Shueisha, you might not be so lucky.

One of those closely-connected companies was Gutsoon, publisher of the short-lived magazine Raijin Comics, and there is no greater example of Gutsoon's incomprehension of the American manga market than their decision to publish Bomber Girl. Why this manga was chosen as one of the launch titles for their make-or-break magazine is beyond me. The only reasons I can think of are the "boss's idiot son" explanation, and the even more incredulous explanation that someone at Gutsoon thought that Bomber Girl's mix of T&A and violence would be a good match for the American comics market.

Bomber Girl is short, sweet, and the stupidest manga imaginable. The heroine, Rashomon Emi, is a future bounty hunter who beats up future crooks with tonfas, often smashing their brains out of their skulls. Basically, like The Dirty Pair (the ho-hum original version, not the awesome Adam Warren licensed version), it is a comedy about a scantily-clad, big-breasted girl who kicks ass, intimidates guys, and generally slaughters anyone who crosses her. This is an established genre, but Bomber Girl isn't The Dirty Pair, or Claymore or even Kurohime...and Makoto Niwano sure ain't Quentin Tarantino. As is usual in manga of this type, Emi is short-tempered and vain and avaricious, and the jokes all revolve around how she is a fiery greedy emotional force of nature who tromps all over the opposition and who no one contradicts and lives. (Admittedly, the latter is a standard trait of rash manga heroes of both genders.)

Emi is a one-dimensional character, and presumably the reader of the manga is supposed to derive some enjoyment from watching her get angry and growl and kill people, and then wink and show her panties in a tight superhero-esque costume. However, it's no fun at all, and the ugly art lacks even cheesecake value. And like all the very worst manga (or comics), it has no climax, literally ending just as Emi is about to confront the big bad guy.

9. Dark Angel

There was a time when I thought Kia Asamiya was the embodiment of all that is bad about manga artists. When I was 17 years old I thought the Silent Möbius anime was the shiznit (there wasn't a whole lot available then...), but once I read the original manga, it didn't take much time to realize that Asamiya had merely crammed as many '80s fantasy and science fiction clichés as possible into a Masamune Shirow/Katsuhiro Otomo stuffing. I was shocked and frankly offended to find out that most of Asamiya's monsters, vehicles and costumes were designed by his assistants. Silent Möbius and Compiler pandered to sci-fi otaku and were designed with anime and model-kit tie-ins in mind, and then later Asamiya pandered to other audiences, such as little girls with Corrector Yui, or little boys who like giant robots in the actually not that bad Steam Detectives. Asamiya's work is slick and commercial and calculated. Here are some of his thoughts on manga, as expressed in an unusually candid 1993 interview in Animerica Vol. 1 #4:

Animerica: Your work really seems to adapt to the trend of the times. It branches out from its source material into so many different channels, from manga to animation, into music albums, novels and must admit, that's fairly unusual.
Asamiya: Silent Möbius was designed with just that intention.
Animerica: I'm sure you've become friends with many of your fellow manga artists. Do you ever get together and talk about your art?
Asamiya: No.
Animerica: Never? You don't have artist-to-artist discussions on the theory of manga?
Asamiya: Artists don't talk about things like that... If there is such a thing as a "theory of manga," it would be whether it's interesting or dull. Period.
Animerica: But some people actually do ponder those difficult concepts.
Asamiya: The world is a big place.
Animerica: Are there any foreign artists you're interested in?
Asamiya: I don't have that many, but there have been a few... It occurs to me that Walt Disney was an artist who's been successful in every aspect an artist can be--in his art, in developing his characters, even as a businessman. When I was a child I didn't see much of Disney animation, and what I did see I didn't like. Now, at age 30, I can finally see the things that make it good.

So what bugged me (at the time an even snobbier person than I am now) about Asamiya is that he is, unapologetically, a producer, not an artist. If Walt Disney is your model for a successful artist, then your model is dollar signs rather than pen strokes. In his defense, however, this is probably how Kia Asamiya has to be to survive. He is a freelancer who works for many different publishers, not an indentured artist like Rumiko Takahashi or any of the Shonen Jump superstars. He has to jump from project to project and he has to put the screentone on the page to put the food on the table for his family. Frankly, it's probably in Asamiya's credit that he was honest enough to admit that his assistants came up with all the good stuff, instead of just hiding it like most manga artists. He is a canny freelance businessman, he likes talking about his work (though he doesn't like talking about art theory), and in general, he is one of the more open-minded and approachable mangaka. His various attempts to break into American superhero comics in the late '90s weren't ultimately successful, but it's hard to imagine any other Japanese artist actually drawing both Batman and Uncanny X-Men. He is, in person, friendly and good-natured, and I think he respects the American model of the "superstar comics creator" for the creators' rights issues, the art style (he loves that Mike Mignola!), AND the elusive promise of making total bank. In his recent manga Junk: Record of the Last Hero, made after he'd returned from drawing X-Men et al. he does a pretty good job of imitating American angsty superheroes.

Beneath all his pandering, his style has a certain originality, as in Junk when he compensates for his inability to draw human faces by having the camera instead focus on dehumanized backgrounds and machinery. When I saw that I thought, "Holy @#$%! That's what *I* do!" If Asamiya really had no soul, he'd probably just become a scripter and get someone else to draw everything (like he did in the translated version of Corrector Yui). His insistence on sticking to his Pinocchio-nosed, pill-eyed character designs is one aspect of the personality of this commercially savvy artist. Inability to draw people is Asamiya's most distinctive trait.

However, the problem about doing a bunch of short projects for different publishers is that you never know if anything is going to be completed and can never develop a story, and this is nowhere more obvious than in Dark Angel, which ran in the Japanese Newtype magazine, in which the manga is just a throwaway diversion from the anime coverage. Dark Angel is probably the worst shonen fantasy manga ever translated. It is the worst because it is clichéd, ugly, bombastic and totally serious about it--or, if it's not serious, any glimmers of self-referential humor are predicated on the unsupportable notion that this crappy manga is worth reading. The story follows the wanderings of Dark, an oblivious swordsman who wanders a pseudo-Chinese setting, accompanied by a nagging fairy companion. Dark is theoretically on some sort of training mission or something, which means that as he wanders from place to place--it's hard to tell where because there are evidently no human inhabitants and the setting consists entirely of traced photos of sand and rocks that seem pasted into the background without regard for the foreground figures--people continually get mad at him and challenge him to fights for stupid reasons. "You set foot on my territory! Prepare to die!" The only way this could be interesting is if the bad guys were all worshippers of Priapus and would actually attempt to rape Dark for setting foot on their land. But, no.

In any case, the plot involves Dark and other characters showing up in the photocopied wasteland and fighting one another; however, "fight scenes" is a compliment, not a description, as the battles rarely consist of anything more than two characters shouting and posing until one of them blows up or drops dead, accompanied by huge explosions, without the slightest attempt to draw human figures moving in relation to one another. Dark moves or is teleported from place to place, encountering new people who attack him, until finally the manga ends in midstream. (Incidentally, one of the villains looks very much like the main character of Kazushi Hagiwara's Bastard!!, and apparently Hagiwara used to make money on the side doing screentone for Asamiya, possibly around the time that Dark Angel was running.)

In the same interview with Animerica, Asamiya also admits, "My problem is that I become easily excited and rapidly lose interest in any one thing...For example, you've probably noticed that I keep a lot of manga by other artists around here. I've never bought any of them until the last volume. My assistants are always asking me, 'How can you just stop in the middle of a story?'" So there's the explanation for Dark Angel. The lack of overall story may be forgivable, but the sad fact is that this manga doesn't even succeed on the level of showing two people punching eachother. I no longer think that Asamiya embodies all that is bad in fact, in some ways he's quite interesting...but Dark Angel is still unreadable.

8. Enmusu

ADV Manga has the unfortunate distinction of being the sole publisher to fulfill Toren Smith's Old Testament prediction that the market couldn't support so much manga and that everything was going to collapse. Of course, ADV Manga is still a going concern with good titles like Yotsuba&! and Cromartie High School, but when they canceled the majority of their line in 2004, they left the market littered with strange artifacts, like fragments from an alien civilization scattered in the blast of a nuclear bomb. Not even a starving librarian would order Daemon Hunters or Kagerou Nostalgia, but one of these canceled titles was Enmusu, which breaks new ground in pandering degenerate insanity.

Enmusu is, basically, a combination of maid/subsitute-mother-figure fetish manga and shonen battle manga. The protagonist, the miserable Gisuke, is getting picked on at school (as usual) when suddenly a Russian maid (YES! Russian fetish!) shows up and gives him a magic omamori, one of those talismans which Japanese people occasionally buy for good luck with a pregnancy, new job, illness, or in this case, an exam. Turns out that a fabulously wealthy corporation owner bequeathed the talismans to various kids who now must compete in standardized tests to see who is worthy of inheriting his fortune. It's capitalism in the raw! Oh, and each talisman comes with a maid who will do anything for the talisman's owner, either cheerfully like Gisuke's maid Sonya, or with the deadened, miserable stare of an Eastern European sex slave, like the maids owned by the other talisman candidates. Judging from the sole volume available in English, the manga then turns into a sort of variant of Yu-Gi-Oh! with the card-playing replaced with test-taking, Yami Yugi replaced with a hero who is constantly wimpy, and copious scenes of maids cleaning their masters in the bath and naked, drugged-looking girls on leashes. And all the characters have the faces of perky eight-year-olds, of course.

"I have no idea who's supposed to be reading this," said Tom Spurgeon in his review of Enmusu. My guess is either (1) perverted junior-high-age boys whose parents would be mad if they knew what they were reading and (2) perverts who are too old to be reading shonen manga but who are reading it anyway, and the editors know it. My feelings are that Enmusu is so bad it might conceivably be a parody of bad manga. In any case, Enmusu has the all-too-rare quality of originality. I wish someone would translate more of it, so I can see, in English, how Gisuke goes from sniveling picked-on kid to sniveling multibillionaire corporation owner with a Russian mail-order bride who does his cooking and laundry for him. In short, this comic is amazing. Kholodnyi Smerch!

7. Central City

The collapse of small-press manga publisher Studio Ironcat was so complete that, despite a few pleasant phone calls I had with Steve Bennett, no one seems to remember exactly what they published or where it came from or why they did it. Ironcat published a few good titles and a bunch of mediocre or bad ones, and one of the bad ones is Central City, which narrowly beats out Antarctic Press's Hurricane Girls and Ironcat's own self-titled Ironcat for the title of "most awful small-press manga that should never have been translated." (It's not actually the worst title published by Studio Ironcat; that honor falls on New Vampire Miyu, but New Vampire Miyu is horrible in a way similar to Dark Angel, so I don't want to write about it. Just imagine Dark Angel without any screentone and with slightly better plot development, printed on a broken-down laser printer with lots of moire patterns. Furthermore, New Vampire Miyu was produced in conjunction with the anime series, so in a way it's a spin-off manga, and doesn't fall under the aegis of this article.)

I have to admit, I'm not sure that Central City is even a manga. It looks like a Japanese comic, but there is no information on a Japanese publisher, and the mysterious artist is listed simply as "Saya." Steve Bennett says that it was personally picked by another ex-Ironcat employee, but my e-mail to their current company, whose website at one point promised more Central City, was met by a reply saying basically, "We aren't planning to do Central City anymore, but can we interest you in covering some of our other titles?" If I had a dollar every time someone asked me to cover some non-Japanese title when I came to them asking for info about some Japanese title... Anyway, I e-mailed them back twice more, asking if they could give me any information about Central City and its artist, and I got no reply. Well, all I can say is...if you're actually the work of an American artist drawing in a manga-like style, I gave you a chance not to be listed, Central City. I gave you a chance.

In the end, though, Central City is so boring and poorly drawn that it's actually more fun to speculate, "Why was this published?" than to describe it. The setting is "100 years after World War III" but, from those infrequent panels which contain some sort of background, we are apparently in a generic modern skyscraper-filled setting. Kaede, the hero, has pyrokinetic powers and wanders the city looking for the man who killed his friend; meanwhile, some detectives are after him; then the whole manga ends with the promise of a so-far-unreleased second volume. Inasmuch as it is anything, this is an angsty bishonen-action manga; however, the art is too weak to give it bishonen appeal and the plot is tedious. People (and by people I mean manga artists), let's care about setting. Let's actually establish what "100 years after World War III" might mean or what "psychic" might mean before you draw a comic about psychics 100 years after World War III. Oh, and some art and plot might help too.

The whole book is less than 100 pages long, making me inclined to think that this is either a translated dojinshi or a book drawn specifically for the American market. In either case, it is a bad manga, the kind of book which I might end up buying at Artist's Alley at a convention if I accidentally make eye contact with the artist and have five bucks, only to end up regretting it. Calling it out after all these years is perhaps like kicking a dog when it's down--or perhaps like tracking down and shooting a war criminal who has been living a peaceful life under an alias for 50 years. In the end, the best thing I can say about Central City is: it is a curiosity, and maybe it was an immature work. Saya, if you're reading this...good luck, and I hope you've gotten better.

6. Princess Princess

"Disappointing" is how I think of Mikiyo Tsuda. I have read two Mikiyo Tsuda manga--Princess Princess and The Day of Revolution--and both of them started with promising ideas and turned them into safe, boring formulas. Art-wise, she strongly resembles her friend the Boys' Love artist Eiki Eiki (The Art of Loving, Dear Myself, World's End) but, unlike Eiki Eiki, she does not make up for her plain art with clever plotting.

Princess Princess is an example of a genre common in Boys' Love and shojo manga like Hana-Kimi, the "imagine the things that happen in an all-boys school OMG!!!" genre. The primary point of these manga is to depict good-looking boys who behave in the most unrealistic, idealized way imaginable. The secondary point is, apparently, to demonstrate that no matter how boring and inane something is, it's exciting if hot boys do it. (In this way, bishonen manga is exactly the equivalent of moe manga, but I'll get to that later.) The plot involves a boys' school where, to quote the back cover text, "boys are chosen to dress up as girls to provide a touch of femininity in the sea of testosterone." The main character finds himself chosen to be one of the "Princesses," meets his fellow cross-dressers, and learns the ropes. It sounds like this would be a good setup for a kinky comedy about gender and sexuality, but sexuality, whether straight or Boys' Love, is too profane a topic to intrude on a Boys' School manga.

It's important to clarify that Princess Princess is not a Boys' Love manga in which the characters immediately pair off like animals on Noah's Ark. No, that would be better because it would mean that something happened. The cross-dressing heroes are mobbed by adoring throngs of boys, but there is no suggestion that anyone has any desire for sex, or any sexual orientation (a concept alien to manga in general). One character has an offscreen girlfriend, and is annoyed with having to be a Princess, but that's about it. Basically, it's set in a wacky madhouse where straight guys love to ooh and aah over other guys. Except that it isn't meant to be a wacky madhouse because all this is taken for granted as part of its genre. (Will Allison's Pervert Club, set in America, is still the only manga-influenced comic I know in which our crossdressing hero is bullied, beaten up, and called a fag. It's not nice when it happens in real life, but I think it's worth acknowledging that these things happen.)

Since obviously no real writer would willingly pander to their audience's desires by making people behave in a way they know is unrealistic--right, romance novelists?--I'm going to assume that Tsuda doesn't know many guys and move on to other aspects of the story. The art is dull and consists mostly of medium shots, never backgrounds or full bodies. The panels are filled with huge dialogue balloons. This could be okay if Tsuda could write good dialogue, like Fumi Yoshinaga, but instead Tsuda merely has the characters blather on about what it's like to be a Princess, or list endless details about the rules and regulations of the imaginary school. ("You are entitled to thirty free lunches every single month." "Out of the sports clubs, there's volleyball, basketball, ping-pong, baseball, soccer, tennis, kendou, judo, archery, and the swim and track teams. That makes 11. Out of the cultural clubs, there's the band, the choir, and the shogi club, which makes three. So that would be 14 clubs total that will have regional meets.") This isn't a manga, this is a school board meeting. The characters talk and talk and TALK; anything that can be expressed in dialogue, rather than visually, is expressed in dialogue. No one has goals or motivations; the character dynamic consists basically of the two characters who like being Princesses teasing the third character who doesn't. The characters spend most of their time in their regular boys' clothes and are only actually shown in costume for a whopping 19 pages in the first volume. Of course, there is the stock "person who likes to design costumes and swoon over how cute the other characters look in them" character, but if I were him, I'd be disappointed. If I'm reading a crossdressing manga, I want to see some actual crossdressing.

There is one point in Princess Princess's favor, and that is that it's technically a comedy (albeit not a funny one). It's not a brooding bishonen angst-fest like, say, the wretched X-KAI. You could fairly argue that I am not the target audience for Tsuda's manga or, more significantly, that I'm looking for something that's just not there (i.e. the vaguest depiction of real sex and gender issues in Princess Princess, or the vaguest hint of real transgenderism in The Day of Revolution). Furthermore, I have to admit that I haven't read the most recent volumes of Princess Princess so it may get better. Nonetheless, in the early volumes the art is weak, the dialogue isn't clever and I found the whole thing incredibly frustrating and boring. And so, on this list of bad manga, Princess Princess will die for the Boy's School genre's sins.

NEXT WEEK: The final five Best Worst Manga! What will they be? Will I get blacklisted from the industry? Or will I instead prove to be a total sellout? Find out next week!


Previous Overlooked Manga Festivities:
Please Save My Earth
From Eroica with Love
Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga
Dr. Slump
Your and My Secret
Wild Act
Knights of the Zodiac
The Drifting Classroom
OMF Special Event: Manga Editors Recommend Manga, Part 1
OMF Special Event: Manga Editors Recommend Manga, Part 2
OMF Special Event: Manga Editors Recommend Manga, Part 3
OMF Special Event: Great Moments in Manga Baking
Shout Out Loud
Warren Buffett: An Illustrated Biography of the World's Most Successful Investor
Sexy Voice and Robo
OMF Special Event: 2006 Overlooked Manga Update
The Four Immigrants Manga
Gerard and Jacques
Ode To Kirihito
Bringing Home the Sushi
Banana Fish
Skip Beat
OMF Special Event: The Greatest Manga Magazine in American History
Cyborg 009
Anywhere But Here
To Terra
Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms
Doing Time
The Walking Man
Sugar Sugar Rune
Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators
Mariko Parade
Golgo 13
Ricca 'tte Kanji!?
Pure Trance
OMF Special Event: My Legacy
OMF Special Event: An All-Star Tribute to Carl Gustav Horn
Guest OMF by Jason Thompson: 888
JoJo's Bizarre Adventure
Tekkon Kinkreet
Yakitate! Japan
Flower of Life
OMF Special Event: Top Ten Lines from the Excel Saga manga
What's Michael?

Tags: overlooked manga festival

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    First, my deepest apologies for keeping the Overlooked Manga Festival on hiatus for so long. I'm currently reading so many manga for a book I'm…

  • New William Bazillion! Oh, now, this is just getting silly. Also, I know I said last week's installment of the Overlooked Manga Festival would…

  • The Compleat OMF

    Just for reference, here's a permalinkable list of all the Overlooked Manga Festival entries. Thanks for reading, everyone! (Note: Some…

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  • Overlooked Manga Festival Patriotic Special Event!

    First, my deepest apologies for keeping the Overlooked Manga Festival on hiatus for so long. I'm currently reading so many manga for a book I'm…

  • New William Bazillion! Oh, now, this is just getting silly. Also, I know I said last week's installment of the Overlooked Manga Festival would…

  • The Compleat OMF

    Just for reference, here's a permalinkable list of all the Overlooked Manga Festival entries. Thanks for reading, everyone! (Note: Some…