The best manga of 2016? Review of To Your Eternity

At the end of the same year in which Western manga readers were treated to the first translated volume of Yoshitoki Ōima’s A Silent Voice, her new series was already launched in Weekly Shōnen Magazine in Japan. The first chapter of To Your Eternity consists of a whopping 80 pages, so it might make sense to review it as if it was a standalone comic.

To Your Eternity (不滅のあなたへ / Fumetsu no anata e) chapter 1
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Yoshitoki Ōima
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Year: 2018 (originally 2016)
Number of volumes: 12 so far in Japan
Pages: 80
Website: https://www.egmont-manga.de/buch-buchreihe/to-your-eternity/ (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=137169 (Baka-Updates)

Another reason for reading the first chapter on its own (besides safely staying in the year 2016) is that the story takes some wild turns in the subsequent chapters, and it is perhaps too soon to make judgements about the coherence of the plot or lack thereof before the series has come to its conclusion. Anyway, in these first 80 pages, the story is quite straightforward, yet far from predictable or unoriginal. It starts with some sort of alien or supernatural life form getting “cast unto the earth”. Stranded in a barren ice desert, it assumes the shape of a dying arctic wolf. The alien/wolf returns to a teenaged boy living all alone who used to keep the ‘old’ wolf as a pet and who now doesn’t notice that this wolf is merely a ‘copy’ of his old one.

At this point we learn that the setting is a pseudo-medieval one. The boy has been left behind by his tribe who went away looking for a better place to settle in a warmer climate. Now, after five years, the boy decides to follow them, in the company of what he believes is his wolf…

Naturally, the transition from a romance manga set in 21st century Japan such as A Silent Voice to the fantasy genre of To Your Eternity is a harsh one. Then again, the life-and-death stakes of a fantasy manga might make for the kind of highly dramatic and emotional story that plays to Ōima’s strengths. However, once more it is the subtler emotional nuances that Ōima conveys so convincingly, e.g. when the boy tries to smile even though he realises things are looking grim – or, conversely, when the facial expressions of the alien/wolf remain inscrutable even though we would expect him to react according to the basic instincts of an animal.

Occasionally we get to see glimpses of Ōima’s artistic genius, as in those incredibly detailed panels where heavy outlines and lots of white space speak for themselves. For these panels to stand out, Ōima counterbalances them with more conventionally drawn (though still finely executed) panels with hatching and screen tone. Despite the fantasy setting which yields lots of animals and exotic clothes, tools and architecture to depict, Ōima doesn’t get lost in details; she has a story to tell and does so efficiently.

Ultimately, comics are a serial medium in more than one way. By virtue of its author, To Your Eternity will always be regarded as a sequel of sorts to A Silent Voice, and these are some huge shoes to fill. But while A Silent Voice might be the more emotionally engaging read due to its more familiar setting, To Your Eternity has the one advantage of feeling delightfully fresh and highly original.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○


Review, Jirō Taniguchi memorial edition: The Millennium Forest

One of the last manga Jirō Taniguchi had been working on before he died (on this day, three years ago) was The Millennium Forest. Designed to span 5 volumes, the small fragment that he was able to complete has been published posthumously.

The Millennium Forest (光年の森 / Kōnen no mori, lit. “light-year forest”; German title: Im Jahrtausendwald)
Language: German (originally Japanese)
Author: Jirō Taniguchi
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Rue de Sèvres / Shōgakukan)
Year: 2018 (originally 2017)
Number of volumes: 1

Pages: 78 (comic: 43)
Price: € 20
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/hardcover/im-jahrtausendwald/96224 (German); https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=152591
ISBN: 978-3-551-72810-4

The publisher(s) clearly intended this book to be more than just another manga. Almost half of the pages are editorial texts, layouts, sketches and other preparatory drawings, and obituaries. Whether this 20 € book (albeit in full colour and hardcover) is a cynical rip-off or a dignified tribute to Taniguchi is a matter of debate. It may be tempting to extrapolate from the information given in the afterword and the bonus material and imagine what a manga series The Millennium Forest might have become. But let’s look at what it is.

The protagonist is 10-year old Wataru. One summer, he leaves Tokyo to live with his grandparents in a remote village situated in mountainous woodland. The story is set in an unspecified past – if we take Wataru for Taniguchi’s alter ego, the year would be 1958 – but it could just as well take place in the present day. After all, relocating from town to country or vice versa is a timelessly popular topic in Japanese fiction. At first, Wataru doesn’t get on with his schoolmates. When wandering in the woods one day he walks into them, and they dare him to climb a tall tree. To everyone’s surprise, including his own, he manages to climb higher than any of the local kids before. The kids are impressed, they make friends with Wataru, and he makes peace with living in the countryside.

That’s one way to summarise this little story. Another would be to speak of the forest as the actual protagonist, or at least as a character in its own right; a forest which mysteriously appears out of the ground as a result of an earthquake, and which is populated by fantastic creatures that only vaguely resemble birds, rabbits, and maybe serows. One could also mention that Wataru possesses the gift of speaking with trees and animals. And that that the tree he climbs saves him from falling down by catching him with a twine.

Are these supernatural elements really necessary? Of course it could be argued that this was meant to be a much longer story which would have placed more emphasis on the fantasy aspects and integrated them more tightly into the seemingly mundane setting, and ultimately conveyed an environmentalist message through them. But as it is, The Millennium Forest would have been a simpler and perhaps stronger story without any supernatural bits. The most powerful of Taniguchi’s manga had always been the firmly realistic, semi-autobiographical ones, such as The Walking Man or Chichi no koyomi.

But we haven’t even talked about the art yet. Over 40 oversized pages (22,5 × 28 cm) painted in watercolour are quite a treat. Taniguchi’s impressive skill in this medium shows in all the subtle modulations, particularly on characters’ faces. At the same time, distinct outlines retain the clarity that is evident in all of Taniguchi’s art. As for the landscape format of the book – the afterword emphasises the difficulties of launching such a product in the Japanese book market – it doesn’t do much for me; a square or regular portrait format would probably have worked just as well. If anything, it obscures the reading order of the panels on some pages, but that might also be due to the flipping by the German publisher.

Recommended if you can check it out from your local library, or for those who wish to complete their collection of Taniguchi’s manga (although there always seems to be ‘new’ material by Taniguchi getting translated).

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


The best manga of 2016? Review of A Silent Voice and Yona

In this second part of a two-part blog post (read part 1 here) I’ll review two more manga from 2016, the widely acclaimed A Silent Voice by Yoshitoki Ōima and the ‘dark horse’ Yona of the Dawn by Mizuho Kusanagi.

A Silent Voice (聲の形 / Koe no katachi) vol. 1
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Yoshitoki Ōima
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2013)
Number of volumes: 4 so far (completed with vol. 7 in Japan)
Pages: 190
Price: € 7
Website: http://www.egmont-manga.de/buch-buchreihe/a-silent-voice/
ISBN: 978-3-7704-8996-1

This is it. This must be the best manga of 2016. While I can’t claim to have read all manga from last year, it’s inconceivable that another manga could be as good as A Silent Voice.

As with Orange, the synopsis didn’t sound that exciting though, which is usually given as something along the lines of ‘deaf girl is bullied by her new classmate but then they get to know each other better’. However, apart from the first 8 pages of a framing narrative, the girl (Nishimiya) doesn’t even appear until page 50. This gives us a lot of space to get acquainted with the compelling character of Shōya, a sixth-grader who (similarly to e.g. Bart Simpson) does evil things without really being evil. Everything he does is motivated by his desire to ‘defeat boredom’ by all means. It’s impossible not to like him when he exclaims, “I declare this day a triumph over boredom!”, and it’s understandable how he immediately sees his new classmate Nishimiya as a remedy for boredom and desperately tries to make use of her to this end.

They way Ōima crafts her story is simple but couldn’t be more effective. By contrasting Nishimiya’s ultimate kindness with Shōya’s ever-increasing meanness while at the same time evoking the reader’s sympathy with Shōya, we experience their conflict as a gut-wrenching lose–lose situation. It can’t get more emotionalising than this. And even though the manga goes on for 6 more volumes, it’s not even all that important whether Nishimiya will ever be able to forgive Shōya – the story as told in vol. 1 is already perfect in itself.

While the script would have been strong enough to work well even if it had been drawn by a lesser artist, the opposite is also true: Ōima could probably illustrate the proverbial phone book and it would still look good. The art of A Silent Voice is absolutely on par with the writing. Of particular ingenuity is the device of repeating panel compositions of certain scenes (Shōya and his mates hanging out in his room, Shōya getting told off by his teacher, Shōya talking at Nishimiya) – not copy-and-pasting but re-drawing them with myriad background details (the amount of which is incredible in many panels anyway) changed.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ●


Yona of the Dawn (暁のヨナ / Akatsuki no Yona) vol. 1
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Mizuho Kusanagi
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Hakusensha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2009)
Number of volumes: 3 so far (22 in Japan)
Pages: 190
Price: € 5
Website: http://www.tokyopop.de/manga/tokyopop-manga/shojo/yona-prinzessin-der-morgendaemmerung/
ISBN: 978-3-8420-3143-2

With vol. 1 released in both Germany and the US and vol. 20-22 in Japan last year, plus a popular anime adaptation the year before, I would have thought Yona to be the most talked-about manga of 2016. Instead, I found it on only one best-of-2016 list. Does that mean it’s not actually that good?

Yona is marketed as a fantasy story for the shōjo demographic, which is an interesting niche – although ‘fantasy’ might be somewhat misleading, as there are no supernatural elements (at least in vol. 1), so it’s more of an alternate history story in a vaguely medieval East Asian setting. This genre mix means that the manga has to deliver not only on drama and romance but also on ‘swordplay’. While the drama/romance part works out fine (could there be anything more dramatic than Yona’s father getting killed by the man she is in love with?), the few action scenes seem stiff, especially when compared to manga by masters who appear to feel more at home in the ‘samurai’ genre such as Sanpei Shirato, Gōseki Kojima, or Hiroaki Samura.

Another problem of this volume is its slow pace: at the end, Yona flees from her father’s murderer and embarks on a journey that will surely end in another dramatic confrontation with said killer. It’s palpable that this is the beginning of what will eventually become an epic and probably very exciting and good story – but in vol. 1, we’re simply not there yet.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


To sum up, in my humble opinion, A Silent Voice is the best manga of the year 2016. However, there are several other strong ongoing series with which I have yet to catch up to their 2016 volumes, so maybe there’s going to be a third review post later this year.


Not-so-successful transition from web to print: Josh Tierney’s Spera

A nice rendition of the protagonsits, Lono and Pira, by Rachel Saunders in the online version. Interestingly, this scene is missing from the printed book.

A nice rendition of the protagonsits, Lono and Pira, by Rachel Saunders in the online version. Interestingly, this scene is missing from the printed book.

Language: English
Authors: Josh Tierney (writer), various artists
Publisher: Archaia (an imprint of Boom! Studios)
Year: 2013
Pages: 90 (main story) / 176 (including short stories)
Price: US-$ 19.95
Website: http://spera-comic.com/
ISBN: 978-1-936393-30-5

Sometimes, it takes little to make a good print comic out of a good web comic (e.g. Robin Vehrs’s Western Touch/Enjambements, reviewed on this weblog). Spera was a good web comic, too, and when its print publication was announced, I was looking forward to it. The concept of Spera was crazy, in a good way: the entire script was written by Josh Tierney, but every 3-8 pages (some of which have large “infinite canvas”-like layouts) the artist would change.

Over 40 artists contributed back then, which resulted in a variety of styles, and also in vastly different levels of quality. Sometimes you couldn’t even figure out what was going on in the illustrations if you hadn’t read Tierney’s synopsis at the start of each section. For the print version, it looks like Tierney (or his editors at Archaia?) wanted to have more consistent art, so the same script is now illustrated by only four artists: Kyla Vanderklugt, Hwei, recent Eisner Award winner Emily Carroll, and Olivier Pichard. Don’t get me wrong, all four of them are superb artists, and on average, the art is probably better in the book than in the web comic.

However, this printed Spera is no longer a bold experiment in comic-making. It’s just a run-of-the-mill fantasy story. The only element in the story that some readers will find interesting is the gender-bending aspect. Furthermore, the dialogue is often awkward and clumsy (“I want to be my own person, exploring secret dungeons and caves. I want to find things made out of gold and silver and trade them for cool weapons”).

On the other hand, the book is designed beautifully as a heavy hard cover volume with golden ornaments on the cover, a map printed on the endpapers, and other nice touches (but still reasonably priced). That’s one advantage over the online version. Still, overall I’m disappointed of how this book turned out, and I probably won’t read any of the following volumes (three to date). If only they had given this book another title, “Spera Reloaded” or something like that…

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○


Why I stopped reading Swamp Thing

Review of Swamp Thing #7-12

detail from a panel by Francesco Francavilla

Previously in Swamp Thing: by the time I wrote my last review, Alec Holland was about to turn into the Swamp Thing, and the series was about to get really good.

Language: English
Authors: Scott Snyder (writer – plus Jeff Lemire in #12), Yanick Paquette/Marco Rudy/various (artist)
Publisher: DC
Pages: 20
Price: $2.99
Website: http://www.dccomics.com/comics/swamp-thing-2011

Back in issue #7, the series still seemed to be going in the right direction. With the help of the Parliament of Trees and his “bio-restorative formula”, Alec Holland is finally transformed and emerges from a giant cabbage as the Swamp Thing. The artwork by Yanick Paquette leaves little to be desired.

In issue #8, however, Paquette shares artist duties with Marco Rudy, depicting the clash of Swamp Thing and the army of the Rot. (For an insightful critique of that concept, see Iann Robinson’s review of #12.)

This pattern is repeated in issue #9: the first 8 pages are drawn by Paquette, the remaining 12 by Rudy. This constant back-and-forth between those two artists is annoying, but at this point, their styles had grown so similar that I almost didn’t mind anymore. A lot of mystical, epic fighting takes place in this comic book.

With issue #10, a completely different artist, Francesco Francavilla, takes over (including the colouring). While Francavilla is by no means a bad artist, his style is such a far cry from Paquette’s and Rudy’s that one cannot help but notice the difference and wonder why.

Especially since in issue #11, Rudy is back as the artist. What was Paquette doing in those 2 1/2 months when he apparently wasn’t drawing Swamp Thing? In fact, the next Swamp Thing issue with Paquette as artist will be #13, which is scheduled for October. I couldn’t find a statement from DC that explained what makes this merry-go-round of artists necessary. Apart from being irritating for the reader, I can’t imagine Eisner and Harvey award-winning writer Scott Snyder is fond of constantly working with fill-in collaborators. This situation is telling about DC’s attitude towards its authors.

The last straw came in issue #12 with the start of the dreaded Animal Man crossover story (“Rotworld”). In fact, this issue is part two of a two-part “prologue” to said storyline, the first part being Animal Man #12. Crossovers that require you to read every single tie-in issue to keep up with what’s going on are a clumsy attempt increase the sales of each involved series, and it doesn’t work with me. I have tried to get into Animal Man before, but didn’t like Steve Pugh’s art, so I don’t feel like picking it up now. Neither am I interested in seeing other characters from the DC universe make guest appearances in Swamp Thing (which will happen in issue #13).

So I won’t be reading Swamp Thing anymore. By means of crossover mania and artist roulette (which DC intends to keep spinning), DC has killed a strong series. Still, it was worth reading for most of its first year, both as a DC universe comic that does without (regular) superheroes, as well as for the intricate ways in which it refers to the pre-relaunch era. Thus the first trade paperback, collecting #1-7 and coming out this month, might be of general interest. For me, however, there are more interesting comic books being published by DC at the moment – more on those in later posts.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○


Review: Swamp Thing #3-6

Language: English
Authors: Scott Snyder (writer), Yanick Paquette/Marco Rudy/various (artist)
Publisher: DC
Pages: 20
Price: $2.99
Website: http://www.dccomics.com/dccomics/comics/?cm=20705

Previously in Swamp Thing: Alec Holland is the Swamp Thing, the Knight of the Green… or is he? Scott Snyder doesn’t really answer that question, in what I assume is an attempt to both pay tribute to and at the same time break away from Swamp Thing’s backstory.

Issue #3 shifts the main focus to a new character, a hospitalized boy named William who becomes the first villain of the series. Things get more creepy from here on. In the Alec Holland storyline, we see him using his power to manipulate plants for the first time, and there’s a nice one-page flashback to happier times for Swamp Thing and his lover Abigail (i.e. a tribute to the earlier series). Although only Snyder and Yanick Paquette are credited on the cover, more than half of this issue is actually drawn by Victor Ibáñez (!), which could be the reason why I liked the art a little bit better than in the first two issues.

In issue #4, Marco Rudy suddenly takes over as penciller, and there are three different inkers now. These changes in the art team are highly irritating, but in itself the art isn’t bad. There’s some more nasty horror in William’s storyline, whereas Alec learns about the epic and mystical background of the Swamp Thing.

Paquette returns as penciller and inker in issue #5, and now I remember what I like about him: his inking is really striking. While I don’t care much for his heavy crosshatching, his outlines, which can be up to about 3mm thick in a close-up, are daring. A third storyline about an evil scientist/occultist in the Amazon Jungle is introduced here, and Alec Holland shows off some more of his Swamp Thing powers in a battle against William.

The artist carousel revolves once more and brings us Marco Rudy again as the penciller and inker for issue #6. I’m not saying Rudy is a worse (or better) artist than Paquette, but I wish they’d let me get used to either of them. Apart from that, this is the darkest, most atmospheric and probably best issue of the series so far.

Luckily, Snyder quickly did away with the idea of connecting Swamp Thing to the rest of the DC Universe (that Superman appearance in the first issue was truly awkward) and now pursues a distinct mystery/horror/fantasy tone. If only DC could resolve the artist trouble, this could be a really good comic. (The next two issues are announced with Paquette as artist, so let’s hope they stick to him.)

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○