I’ve come to the realization that when I want to read comics for a strong narrative and an ongoing story, I turn to manga (or tv or novels). The western comics I read have tended more and more to be less about long narrative (with a very few exceptions). Perhaps this is partly because of my access to manga. I don’t read Japanese, so any manga I read has to be picked up for translation (primarily in English, though I’ve read a few things in French editions), so it will tend to be the more commercially viable work. Here are a few manga I enjoyed this year (I didn’t read a lot of manga this year), in no particular order.
House of Five Leaves by Natsume Ono (Viz) (5 (of 8) volumes): Ono’s art isn’t as slick as most manga, and there is an occasional awkwardness to some of the drawing, but I really love this low key historical drama about an out-of-work samurai and the kidnapping gang he gets involved with. A lot of what goes on the narrative is left unsaid, and Ono is skilled at revealing the various characters’ histories and personalities as integral parts of the forward movement of the narrative. Especially interesting is the way she seems to completely eschew showing fight scenes, opting, in the rare times when they occur, to show what precedes the action and the result of the action, but not the action itself. It’s almost counterintuitive to the genre (think of the volumes long fight scenes in Lone Wolf and Cub or Vagabond), but it works here, perhaps for that very reason. Ono also has quite the way with harsh cropping of her compositions, which adds to the fractured and subtler parts of the story.
Wandering Son by Shimura Takako (Fantagraphics) (1 (of 11) volumes, ongoing): Much like House of Five Leaves, I like the way this series is subtle and very low key. Like Ono’s work Takako’s is also less slick than most manga, and rather spare in its own way. I’m looking forward to volume 2 (which appears to be out just as the year starts).
Cross Game by Mitsuri Adachi (Viz) (5 (of 8) volumes): I think I’ve written enough about Cross Game already. Certainly the most conventional of anything I’ll list in my favorites from the year.
Lorsque Nous Vivions Ensemble by Kazuo Kamimura (Kana) (3 volumes): One of the French manga translations I’ve read. Kamimura is known, if he’s known at all, in the US for doing the art on the Kazuo Koike written Lady Snowblood (Dark Horse). This is a very different work written and drawn by Kamimura in the early 70′s, apparently after the popular success of Red-Colored Elegy (D&Q). It’s much like that other work in basic plot (a young artistic couple living together as an unmarried couple), but is much more drawn out (these are big volumes) and melodramatic. If you can accept the melodrama, you can be impressed by the way Kamimura tells the story visually. One day I’ll reread this and write at more length on it.