Author and Artist: Jiro Taniguchi
Publisher: Fanfare-Ponent Mon
Compare prices for A Zoo in Winter
Before he was the award-winning creator of A Distant Neighborhood and The Walking Man, Jiro Taniguchi was a struggling comics artist. A Zoo in Winter is his semi-autobiographical look at what it was like to be a young man in his twenties in Tokyo in the 1960's, as an assistant to a famous manga artist. In between deadlines, he meets various bohemians, artists, and the shy young woman who would become his muse and inspiration to create his first manga series.
Someone once described A Zoo in Winter as Bakuman for older men, and I can't say that's too far from the truth! It's a look at the life of a young manga-ka seen through a softer focus lens that only an artist with Taniguchi's many years of experience can muster.
Author and Artist: Gajo Sakamoto
Publisher: PressPop / Last Gasp
Compare prices for Tank Tankuro: Pre-War Works 1934-1935
Pre-dating Astro Boy by several decades, Tank Tankuro has been described as manga's first "superhero." Within the context of the original pre-WWII publication date of these comics, this roly-poly robot with a samurai's top-knot is disturbingly cheerful about going to war. The art is also a bit crudely-drawn by today's standards -- but if you look beyond that, Tank Tankuro is a fascinating document of an era of Japanese manga that's rarely seen in English.
PressPop's edition of Tank Tankuro is also worth mentioning for its attention to detail. It's a slip-covered hardcover book designed by Chris Ware (Acme Novelty Library), and it includes several interesting essays by Sakamoto, his son Naoki Sakamoto, and scholar Shunsuke Nakazawa that puts this bit of manga history into context.
Author and Artist: Yuiji Aniya
Publisher: June Manga / Digital Manga Publishing
Compare prices for Men of Tattoos
I'll admit I have pretty quirky taste in boys' love manga -- but even by my standards, Men of Tattoos is in a whole 'nother class. It's a series of (mostly) related short stories about men who live in the shadows, bound by a code of honor that is symbolized by the elaborate tattoos on their bodies. But Men of Tattoos is much, much more than your usual 'yakuza with a heart of gold' story.
There are twists, oh my god, there are 'what-the-hell-just-happened-here?' twists that come when you least expect them. The art isn't 'pretty' and the men? Frankly, they're not exactly swoon-worthy. Nevertheless, the stories in Men of Tattoos are strange, funny, heart-breaking and surreal... and sexy too? Well, kind of -- just not in the way you might want or expect.
Author and Artist: George Alexopoulos
Publisher: Studio NJ/Bento Comics (self-published)
Buy it direct from Studio NJ
This one completely caught me by surprise -- heck, I'm not even sure if it made its debut in print in 2011. I picked it up at the Bento Comics booth at New York Comic-Con, took it home, read it and was instantly charmed. The art has its rough spots, but overall, TokyoPop alum Alexopoulous (creator of Go With Grace) has crafted a nicely-paced, loveable story. While it's not set in the City of Lights, Paris depicts a distinct sense of place for a land that's rarely explored in manga: the Greek Islands.
Greek-American twenty-something Katerina is feeling at loose ends, so she opts for a summer vacation visiting her relatives in Greece. While on a solo visit to a nearby island, she runs into Nikos, a young man who catches her eye and crosses her path several times. While her command of the Greek language is rudimentary at best, Katerina manages to communicate and connect with Nikos. Their chemistry is undeniable, but as the days of her vacation are coming to an end, Katerina wonders if her relationship with Nikos is destined to be just a pleasant memory.
Author and Artist: Fumiyo Kouno
Publisher: Futabasha / JManga.com
Buy and read it online at JManga.com
Thanks to JManga.com, Digital Manga, and VIZ Manga/SuBLime, 2011 brought us more many new manga titles that are only available as digital releases. Some were admittedly disposable pleasures and some were just... disposable -- but there were a few titles that were so good, it made me wish I could buy them in print. One such manga is To All Corners of the World, a charming WWII story from the creator of Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms.
Where Town of Evening Calm was about the aftermath of WWII, To All Corners of the World is about the years preceding the war as seen through the eyes of ordinary people in the path of history. Sure, there are hints of the sacrifices made during wartime, but for the most part, this is a slice-of-life story about a girl with an irrepressible imagination who is sent to Hiroshima to marry a young man she has met only once.