I'm the artist in residence at the Charles Schulz Museum and Research Center this weekend. If you're in the Santa Rosa area, stop by between 1:00 and 3:00 and say hi.
Andrew and I recently wrote a memorial to San Francisco cartoonist Phil Frank, creator of the only daily comic strip drawn for a single newspaper. You can read our thoughts on his public memorial service over on Andrew's LiveJournal.
Oh, and I donated an original Narbonic strip to an eBay auction for Girl-Wonder.org. You can check out the auction right here. They're good people who deserve your support, so go have a look at all the stuff that's up for auction (and there's a heck of a lot of stuff). Bidding ends October 15.
Man, lotta links this week. Okay, on to the second half of Jason Thompson's Overlooked Manga Festival Special Event!
Last week, Jason, who has read every manga ever published in English to save our eternal souls, began his descent into the ten most justifiably overlooked manga. You can witness the horror here. Now here are the final five: the worst manga ever encountered by the man who has seen every manga and lived to tell the tale.
Not incidentally, Jason's book Manga: The Complete Guide is now out in stores. If you're in the Bay Area, you should stop by Comic Relief in Berkeley tomorrow for the launch party, with Jason on hand to sign books and give away copies of all the manga currently filling his apartment.
Okay, on to the best worst manga!
The Top Ten Best Worst Manga: Part Two
By Jason Thompson
5. Shiki Tsukai
In the realm of shonen manga for younger readers, Kodansha follows, not leads, the pack. Kage Tora is a weak imitation of Ranma 1/2...Dragon Eye is a weak imitation of Naruto...Rave Master is a weak (but not entirely bad) imitation of One Piece...etc. When it's not the stories that are similar, the art in Weekly Shonen Magazine is dull and formulaic. Kodansha's seinen titles--and their titles for older teen boys, like Beck and GTO--are frequently good, but when they try to do action-adventure manga for younger kids, they generally fail. Of course, even Shonen Jump has its bad moments, like Buso Renkin.
What makes for a bad shonen manga? Lots of things. Confusing action scenes. Excessively easy fights with no dramatic tension. Generic art. Stealing from other shonen manga. And then there is something for which a quote from Manga: The Complete Guide speaks best. I probably shouldn't quote from my own book, but this part was written by another writer, so here is Rebecca Brown's description of Dragon Drive:
"Reiji's a loser kid who isn't really good at anything."
That's just the first sentence, but doesn't it make you feel like you've already read Dragon Drive? This is actually a problem common to all manga, in which protagonists are frequently made wimpy and pathetic and aimless so even the lamest reader cannot possibly feel outclassed by the main character. Not that there's any problem with having this lame-o discover that they're the Sacred Child of the Prophecy or Chosen by the Gods or something like that. Which brings us to this year's poster boy for a terrible shonen manga, Shiki Tsukai, which admittedly I've only read the first volume of.
Akira Kizuki is a sensitive, insecure 14-year-old boy who isn't really good at anything. (The average age of shonen manga readers is 14, judging from the constant recurrence of this age among manga heroes.) One day he encounters a mysterious girl, Koyomi, who tells him that he is a "shiki tsukai," keeper of the seasons, and he must fight to save the earth from environmental extremists. Akira is special because he has "the potential to be loved by all the seasons." There are a whole bunch of "shiki tsukai," each one embodying the powers of a particular time of the year, and their powers are written down on cards called "shikifu", which list their abilities (not to mention their favorite holidays, their birthstone, their birth flower, etc.)
Can there possibly be a less atmospheric expression of supernatural powers than collectible cards? The "shikifu" are also linked to "kijyuu," elemental beasts, which are your standard servants/summoned monsters/critters/Pokémon who serve the "shiki tsukai." Akira doesn't have much in the way of goals, but he wants to make sure the "kijyuu" are treated nicely! To activate their powers, the "shiki tsukai" must wave cards around and call out the "Season Incantation," at which point blasts of screentone--excuse me, I mean energy--shoot out of them and strike their opponents. Like in X/1999, the shiki tsukai also have the power to form a "sealed dimension," a square space for them to fight in. Also like in X/1999, or Revolutionary Girl Utena or more precisely Elemental Gelade, the hero's sidekick Koyomi transfers into a sword, when she's not explaining all this stuff.
In short, this story has every element of a shonen manga, but it just doesn't work. The idea of having powers based on the seasons doesn't suggest very interesting imagery to begin with, and the endless lists of powers inscribed on the "shikifu" are nonintuitive and violate the all-important "show, don't tell" rule. It's a standard rule of manga to have some kind of technical data and terminology surrounding the heroes' powers for the reader to keep track of (think of the rules of nen in Hunter X Hunter, the rules of chakra in Naruto, the complicated battle system in Black God) but this has to be presented in a way which doesn't cause the readers' eyes to glaze over. Actual quote: "Koyomi Sakuragi's Shikifu is made from pink beryl (Hardness: 7.5-8). Its modern gemstone name is morganite. The stone's meaning is 'Charming' and 'A Sweet Disposition.' The color symbolizes relaxation and peace, and is said to celebrate the joy of life. Morganite is a variety of beryl and gets its beautiful peach pink color from manganese. Aquamarine, emeralds, and goshenites are all varieties of the beryl. The impurities or elements in the beryl determine the color and thus the variety."
The sad thing is that it might actually be possible to make these elements come together into something interesting...maybe...but Shiki Tsukai fails to provide the artwork and imagery that could redeem this trivia. Instead it's just a data dump; if Yuna Takanagi can't draw morganite, To-ru Zekuu shouldn't write about it for four sentences. Similarly, the "kijyuu" are generic monsters, lacking personality, and the good-looking characters all look the same. Worst of all, the fight scenes are confusing and unclear, almost on the Dark Angel level, giving no feeling of strategy, the relative strength of the combatants, or their positions relative to one another. The antagonists of the series are cripplingly dull, and by the end of the first volume none of them are worth remembering.
Though it fails as a battle manga, it's possible to take some small comfort from the wacky hijinks of the character relationships. Hot girl who ends up living with the main character? Side characters calling him a "pervert" because he lives with aforementioned hot girl? Sexy teacher with big breasts who makes passes at him? All these are terrible clichés too, but at least they succeed as clichés. Oh, Akira, you loser kid! What do these women see in you?
4. Deus Vitae
I have never seen Takuya Fujima, but I visualize him as some sort of monstrous amorphous blob. His work is polished and good-looking in a screentone-overload way, and all of his major series have very different character designs--from Free Collars Kingdom to Negima!? Neo to Deus Vitae. He is, in other words, a reasonably talented chameleon.
Deus Vitae is kind of like a parody of what people who don't know much about manga (and who grew up in the '80s and early '90s when anime was taking off) expect manga to look like. It's all objects exploding out of the panel borders, women in tight clothes, and cybertechnology. The setting is the year 2068, a futuristic world of megacities where human beings are ruled by androids called "selenoids." Ash Lamy, a human with some kind of psychic blowing-stuff-up powers, rebels against his masters and is immediately clapped in jail, where the frequerntly naked "mother computers" attempt to engage him in cybersex and angry male selenoids challenge him to fights. Ash ends up becoming the leader of a group of freedom fighters named "Re-o" who pop out of nowhere and are fought by female selenoids in sexy outfits. One of the selenoids (the youngest-looking one, naturally) falls in love with our hero and clings to him like a limpet as he rushes around the cyber-city shouting "The creatures you call slaves... are the children of man!"
This manga has some detailed, detailed art. It's actually pretty fascinating on a page-by-page basis; the patterns and scenery are intricate and each page features contorted, often naked figures striking some melodramatic pose. Every object, including faces, is covered with screentone, making it difficult to tell the foreground from the background. Then the problems begin: it looks more like a series of figure-drawing practices than a fluid sequence of action. The story moves from scene to scene in a herky-jerky manner. Then the dialogue begins: "He killed the director! Now he's gonna pay!" "Kid stuff." "You beast! Taste my wrath! Wh...what? You beast! How the...?!" "You must really hate your life." "He's uploading the system. How..." "Dieeee!!!!"
In short: total chaos, a ton of sci-fi clichés, and a bombastic mood similar to a bad American comic. Basically, this is a showing-off manga, and it feels like an artist's debut work. Fujima's art is polished, but convoluted and overblown, and the story is equally ridiculous. Interestingly, Deus Vitae was rated the worst manga of all time in a poll by Anime News Network. I obviously agree, but I have a sinking suspicion that it would have rated higher if Fujima had chosen a less chiseled, more fashionable, more moe art style. Deus Vitae is awful, but compared to many other futuristic sci-fi manga like Kamui, which has a big fan following, its awfulness is just a question of degree.
[Shaenon's note: Sorry about the lack of images. Jason didn't have a copy of this horrible manga on hand to scan.]
Tamayo Akiyama used to be a member of CLAMP. Wow, somebody offer her a ten-book contract! Wait, wait. Akiyama hasn't been a member of CLAMP since around the time the group was founded. Her style looks like a CLAMP dojinshi frozen in time for two decades. Her work also has similar subjects to early CLAMP, such as a sentai action parody (Hyper Rune) and la-la-land fantasy adventures (Mouryou Kaiden: Legend of the Nymph, Zyword). But where her ex-colleagues have been able to reinvent themselves and explore a variety of themes and art styles which nonetheless all share a core "CLAMP-ness," Akiyama retreads the same territory and her writing is often unclear, to say the least.
Secret Chaser is a pretty bad Akiyama manga involving a priest/private investigator who gets involved in confusing cases involving hypnotism and stuffed animals. His assistants are a young boy and a model/actress. ("There are some rumors going around. That the father here likes to take in young boys...that maybe he has some strange habits, you know?") However, upon rereading Secret Chaser I found that I could almost tell what was going on, so that one couldn't make the "10 Best Worst Manga" list. That honor goes to Zyword, a truly wretched fantasy manga.
Zyword is sort of like if two volumes of Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle were stranded on an island and forced to incestuously breed with themselves for generations. The plot follows three kids who are the last unsorcelled humans in the cursed kingdom of Zyword, where a spell has put everyone to sleep. The heroes, essentially the only three characters in the story, roam around and fight dull-looking monsters using RPG magic ("What? My red thunder spell didn't work?"). In between kicking ass, the heroes banter inanely. Art-wise, the manga was drawn in 2005, and Akiyama's work looks almost exactly the same as it did in 1989. The lines are thick and lacking in detail, and everything is fuzzed out with great swashes of screentone, like if you took a magnifying glass to a page of Magic Knight Rayearth. No work seems to have gone into the design of this world, and certainly no work into the story. To add insult to injury, the story ends abruptly in the middle, begging the question--why was this even translated? Was there a bargain sale on Akiyama manga licensing?
The only translated fantasy manga worse than Zyword is the horrible cyber-fantasy Princess Ninja Scroll Tenka Muso, which I chose as one of the "Top Five Worst Manga" for an interview with Patrick Macias in the Japanese Figure Oh magazine. Princess Ninja Scroll, however, feels like the work of incompetent amateurs, while Zyword is the work of a 15-year manga industry veteran. Everyone has their bad days, so let's think of Zyword as the shojo equivalent of Dark Angel.
2. Tori Koro
I am a fan of American newspaper strips, particularly the classic continuity strips from the 1950s and earlier (Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy, Li'l Abner), before their size started to shrink and the story strips were replaced by gag-a-day comics. Bloom County and Doonesbury are funny and have/had occasional stabs at continuity, but I am generally bored with pure gag-a-day comics, particularly since most of them are aimed at the increasingly older and more conservative audience of newspaper readers. Four-panel manga are the direct Japanese equivalent of newspaper strips, and they a lot more popular in Japan than its limited English translations suggest. But like American newspaper gag strips, four-panel manga are all too often bland and pointless. The artists of Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga said it best:
In the late 1990s, Azumanga Daioh introduced the moe element into four-panel manga. The meaning of "moe" is a bit nebulous, but to me it seems to be (1) the current generation's self-chosen name for otaku, (2) the current big-eyed cute-girl anime-esque art style and (3) more specifically, stories, like Azumanga Daioh, about cute young girls and their innocent antics. These manga have the advantage of appealing both to actual young girls and to adult men who like reading about young girls. Moe manga thus spans a broad range from borderline lolicon (really a separate trend dating to the early '80s and technically not moe since it's too filthy), to mostly innocent stories with the occasional yuri tease or panty shot (like Strawberry Marshmallow and High School Girls), to all-girl tales of everyday life so sweet and sentimental they make the average shôjo manga look scandalous.
"Girlish Comics for Boys and Girls" is the tagline of the moe magazine Comic High. Like bishonen manga, moe manga blurs gender lines, partly mimicking girls' manga and partially expressing a male fantasy of what girls are like. But aside from a few titles like Shakugan no Shana, these girls generally aren't ass-kicking action heroes. Male readers of moe are looking for something else. In Nahguib Mahfouz's novel Palace Walk, innocent seven-year-old Kamal allows himself to fantasize that "the world of men might be like that of women." Unfortunately, since Palace Walk is set in 1919 Cairo, the women's world Kamal dreams of joining is one in which women never leave the house and spend all their time cooking and cleaning and living trapped in a comfortable harem-world where nothing happens. This is also part of the appeal of moe manga, and it is this appeal which crosses over with the appeal of non-continuity newspaper strip comics. Both are about comfort, not catharsis. In moe (and bishonen) manga there is no room for plot because the entire manga is about the appeal of the characters. And hey, everyone from Kazuo Koike to Eijiro Shimada will tell you that "manga is all about character," right?
Tori Koro is a popular Japanese four-panel manga, and very similar to an American newspaper strip. The characters are three unrelated girls with different-colored hair ("tri-color," i.e. "tori koro") who are forced to live in the same house when two of the girls have family difficulties. Yao is the shortest and cutest, and the best cook. Tatami is a tomboy from Hiroshima. Makishi is a smart girl with glasses from Kansai. Presumably these carry cultural stereotypes which any Japanese person would recognize, like an American strip starring a Southerner, a Valley Girl and a Midwesterner. Think of the comedic possibilities that could arise from these characters living together! Still thinking? Yes, there are no comedic possibilities. Check out this exciting exchange:
Pretty strong stuff, eh? It's not just that Tori Koro occasionally depends on jokes about Japanese cultural trivia; it's that it barely has jokes at all. One of the ways in which four-panel manga differs from American comic strips is that it's printed several strips at a time, so a good cartoonist (like Kiyohiko Azuma of Azumanga Daioh) can set up punchlines and do running jokes between the strips. Unfortunately, in the case of Tori Koro, this just provides an excuse to divide one strip's worth of humor between 15 strips, without adding any plot to replace it. In some cases it seems like poor rewrite in the English edition is dampening the humor, but in most cases it's clear that these strips are simply unfunny. They are as boring as the worst American comic strips. The biggest difference (perhaps to Tori Koro's credit) is that, rather than desperately flailing for a punchline, it errs on the side of inactivity. Where Azumanga Daioh had a real sense of humor and absurdity, Tori Koro is all about domestic situations and character trivia. Did you know that Character X is scared of dogs? Did you know that Character Y's mom is a professional chess player? Hey, what if a character got sick and the others had to nurse her to health? How about cooking and calorie-counting? Excuse me, I fell asleep on my laptop!
I haven't read enough modern four-panel manga to know how most of them stack up to Tori Koro, but beneath the masks of these three moe girls lies a mentality even duller than Kobo the Li'l Rascal. Art-wise, everyone has the same face, and the characters are too stylized to really be cute; it's less like watching girls than like watching salt-shakers or some other inanimate objects. Tori Koro is interesting as an example of a rarely translated type of manga, but when I turn those pages, it is unbearably boring. Character may be the most important thing in manga, but characters need to be interesting, and while I'm dreaming, how about some character development, too?
Eiken, together with Enmusu, reinforces my belief that Weekly Shonen Champion magazine is, as another former Viz employee might have put it it, "taking the piss out of" its readers. If half of me thinks that Enmusu is a bad-taste parody (or at least can be intentionally read both ways), 99% of me thinks that Eiken is a bad-taste parody, just like Baron Gong Battle and Apocalypse Zero are parodies of action manga. Unfortunately, since this is Shonen Champion, I'm talking about really bad taste, like Peter Jackson's Bad Taste. Or perhaps Meet the Feebles. Eiken is in such bad taste that it's almost unreadable (maybe just to me, though; it's actually the only one of Media Blaster's many Akita Shoten manga which sold well enough to be continued).
Going into Eiken, all I knew was that it is a shonen romantic comedy manga. Imagine me sitting down in my manor house in my smoking jacket, in front of a roaring wood fire, with some tea and warm crumpets, saying, "My! What a delightful way to while away a rainy afternoon! I certainly look forward to reading this shonen romantic comedy manga!" Then imagine me opening up the manga and saying "GOOD GOD! WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?!"
Although Eiken follows the outline of a typical bad romantic comedy manga (Gacha Gacha, Pastel, Strawberry 100%, Girls Bravo, etc.) its innovation is that, basically, it has no romance and is simply a bunch of scenes of gargantuan naked breasts and hypertrophic labias. (More of the former.) The art is intentionally disgusting. Every single fluid looks like semen and the women's anatomies are so grotesque that they make mid-'90s American "bad girl" comics look like the paintings of the Dutch Masters. Essentially it's a harem manga; the plot involves a miserable guy who goes to a school where he is surrounded by congenitally disfigured women. The first scene opens with the main character accidentally stumbling and landing with his hands on a girl's giant breasts; there follow several pages of rolling and heaving. Later scenes involve the main character falling into a naked churning pile of women (by accident) with his penis covered by a little black bar as it flaps and dangles, or women eating phallic food like sausages and natto.
This goes on for EVERY PAGE OF 18 VOLUMES. As someone who has a soft spot for manga like Video Girl Ai, in which emo love and angst serve as the dialogue track for endless panty shots, Eiken is like having my face rubbed in the true nature of love comedy manga. ("You see this porn?! THIS is the kind of manga you're reading. ADMIT IT! ADMIT IT!") It is the work of an "insult comic" manga artist. Interestingly, Seiji Matsuyama's other manga are not nearly as dirty, which suggests (to me at least) that he doesn't actually get off on this stuff.
In short, the point of this manga is not to turn on the reader (unless you are a complete freak). It's more like some kids checking a book out of the library and drawing penises and vaginas all over all the characters. Eiken is an assault on the senses. I actually found it so repulsive that I gave it zero stars, but frankly, this is intended as a compliment. Think of Roger Ebert's review of The Hitcher or Natural Born Killers. So if you want to read a zero-star manga that really stands out from the pack of merely mediocre and derivative manga, a truly towering work of evil genius, read Eiken. And god help you.
Now that we reach the end of this list, I see that I have left off many potential "Best Worst Manga." There is Judas, the dumbest Judeo-Christian-imagery-based manga ever. There is Angel's Wing, an awful color manga drawn for the American market. The incomprehensible Tenryu the Dragon Cycle. The unreadable Pichi Pichi Pitch. Yukiru Sugisaki's many frustratingly unfinished manga. Where to draw the line? Although I never intended to represent every publisher, I notice that no manga from Seven Seas, Dark Horse or Viz made it on the list. Most of Viz's worst manga have been licensed spin-offs like Medabots and Street Fighter: The Animated Movie, so they don't qualify for this list, but Viz did publish Wedding Peach: Young Love, and if you want to read a review of a current horrible Viz manga, pick up a copy of Otaku USA #4 and flip to the "manga reviews" section.
The truth is that, although all the manga I've just listed are bad, in a way these are not the worst manga. Some of these 10 manga are either so bad as to be amusing, or are the works of interesting but flawed artists. The truly worst manga are arguably the mediocre ones, the licensed spin-offs which are too boring to remember, the ones which are "just like every other manga." Manga based on video games and anime like Onegai Teacher and Happy Lesson and Nightwarriors...shonen manga about harems of women who fawn over pathetic losers...shojo manga about magical girls or perfect guys who have been waiting all their lives for the heroine to show up...there's no end to it. And there aren't enough rape dollars in the world to pay me to write about the worst adult and yaoi manga. Luckily (?), in another 5 years the supply of awful translated manga will be completely refreshed, so there may be room for another article like this. Perhaps I'll even start writing about awful OEL manga. Manga Claus, I'm looking at you! You have five years' head start, so get running!
Previous Overlooked Manga Festivities:
Please Save My Earth
From Eroica with Love
Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga
Your and My Secret
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
OMF Special Event: The Greatest Manga Magazine in American History
Anywhere But Here
Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms
The Walking Man
Sugar Sugar Rune
Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators
Ricca 'tte Kanji!?
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
Flower of Life
OMF Special Event: Top Ten Lines from the Excel Saga manga
OMF Special Event: Jason Thompson Presents the Top Ten Best Worst Manga, Part One