The best manga of 2016? Review of Orange and Knights of Sidonia

Are the manga that almost everyone put on their best-comics-of-2016 lists really so awesome? (Spoiler: yes, they are.) Or was the actually best manga a completely different one that was overlooked by most? In this little two-part blog post [EDIT: read part 2 here] I’ll review two titles from each of those categories.

Orange (orange) vol. 1panel from Orange #1 by Ichigo Takano
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Ichigo Takano
Publisher: Carlsen Manga (originally Shūeisha and Futabasha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2012)
Number of volumes: 3 so far (completed with vol. 5 in Japan)
Pages: ~190 (+ 30 pages backup story)
Price: € 8
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/serie/orange/72643
ISBN: 978-3-551-71324-7

Orange is the highest-ranked manga in the aggregate ranking of 2016 year-end lists, so it certainly is the most popular among critics. But is it also the best? If you only go by its synopsis, you wouldn’t think so: 16-year old Naho mysteriously starts receiving letters from the future, written by herself at age 26. The letters are mainly concerned with Naho’s new classmate Kakeru, who will die next year, and adult Naho wants teenage Naho to prevent this.

Magically travelling back to one’s teenage days is not a particularly original premise for a manga – cf. the recent ReLIFE by Yayoisō and 31 I Dream by Arina Tanemura, and of course Jirō Taniguchi’s 1990s masterpiece, A Distant Neighborhood. The new spin in Orange is that 26-year old Naho doesn’t travel back in time; she only sends letters but can’t control what her 16-year old self does, and 16-year old Naho doesn’t know anything about her future except for what she reads in the letters.

This makes for an ideal starting point for the compelling exploration of a theme that was also central to Taniguchi: regret. One could even argue this works better in Orange, because although 16-year old Naho knows what she is supposed to do (according to the advice in the letters), she often can’t bring herself to do it, or decides against it, or simply misses the opportunity. The letters don’t change who she is; they don’t turn her into another, more courageous, person.

Add to that some gorgeous artwork (masterly use of screen tones!) and you get an almost perfect manga. Almost, but not quite: what took me by surprise was that the story is partially set in the time of adult Naho, and – not unlike the much-reviled epilogue to the final Harry Potter novel – I don’t think this works all that well. While the manga demographic terms of shōjo and josei are often problematic, this distinction might be at the core of the problem here: a reader can identify with either Naho the wife and mother or Naho the high schooler, but probably not both.

Another potentially problematic element is the unlikely plot device of sending letters back in time in an otherwise realistic setting, which as of vol. 1 hasn’t been explained yet. An unconvincing explanation at the end can still ruin a series that had been good up to this point (I’m looking at you, Nobuaki Kanazawa), so we’ll have to wait and see how this is handled in the four remaining volumes of Orange.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

Knights of Sidonia (シドニアの騎士 / Shidonia no kishi) vol. 14
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Tsutomu Nihei
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Year: 2017 (originally 2015)
Number of volumes: 14 so far (completed with vol. 15 in Japan)
Pages: ~170
Price: € 7.50
Website: http://www.egmont-manga.de/buch-buchreihe/knights-of-sidonia/
ISBN: 9783-7704-9240-4

Ostensibly, this penultimate volume of Knights of Sidonia has little to do with 2016: the original Japanese tankōbon was published in 2015 already and this German translation only this year. However, the 15th and final volume, which is yet to be published in German, came out in the US last year, so I would have thought the conclusion of the series would make a bigger impact on the Western manga scene.

Instead it seems to have gone by unnoticed – it wasn’t on any of the best manga/comics of 2016 lists -, which is a shame because of the historic significance in the field of science-fiction manga that this series has already earned itself due to its scale (surpassing Tsutomu Nihei’s earlier magnum opus, Blame!, by 5 volumes), its ambitious genre-bending, and its modernisation of the venerable mecha genre.

I’ve sung the praises of the series before, but how does a a single volume hold up when judged individually? In the case of vol. 14, it’s an above-average volume because many exciting things happen in it: there’s an alien infiltrator aboard the mothership Sidonia, Mrs Hiyama the talking bear makes several appearances, we get to know the enigmatic captain Kobayashi better, we even learn something about protagonist Tanikaze’s origin, Tanikaze gets a new mecha model, etc.

That being said, Knights of Sidonia might be a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts – or rather, being precisely the sum of its parts, with each new volume adding to the enjoyment of reading, rather than merely replicating it. For each awesome scene, there’s a sequence where it’s hard to figure out what’s going on (particularly the space fights), or an unlikely twist that’s only there for shock value. But put together, there’s a lot of awesomeness over the course of this series.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○


The best comics of 2016: a meta list

panels from Patience, Orange, and Madgermanes

[UPDATE: added 2 more lists – Chicago Public Library and AiPT.]

[UPDATE: added one more list – Comicgate.]

[UPDATE: added 9 more lists – Autostraddle, 3× Barnes & Noble, The Beat, ComFor, Comic Report, ComicsAlliance and Odyssey.]

[UPDATE: added 3 more lists – Amazon, Graphixia, and Rob Clough’s -; thus the strikethrough text in the comments and the little arrows next to some comics to indicate that their rank went up or down compared to the previous version.]

Towards every end of year (and shortly afterwards), lots of people publicly share their opinion on what the best comics of that year were in the form of best-of lists. Aggregating these lists into one ‘master list’ or ‘meta list’ might yield, if one believes in the ‘wisdom of crowds’, the best of the best.

For 2015, such lists were compiled by Multiversity Comics and ICv2, and their straightforward method was to simply count in how many best-of lists each title appeared, and then to rank the titles by that number. So I did that too, but I’m not quite satisfied with this method, and thus also offer a new kind of ranking below. Here’s the top ~25 according to the ‘old’ ranking method first:

1.) The Vision by Tom King, Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Jordie Bellaire (on 16 out of 36 lists)

2.) March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell (14)

3.) Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang and Matt Wilson (12)

4.) Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda (10)
Patience by Daniel Clowes (10)

6.) Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier (8)
Rolling Blackouts by Sarah Glidden (8)
Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart (8)

9.) The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew (7)
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (7)

11.) The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and Matthew Wilson (6)
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North and Erica Henderson (6)

13.) Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze and Laura Martin (5)
Dark Night
by Paul Dini and Eduardo Risso (5)
Faith
by Jody Houser, Francis Portela and Marguerite Sauvage (5) ⇧
Goodnight Punpun
by Inio Asano (5) ⇧
Hot Dog Taste Test
by Lisa Hanawalt (5)
Mooncop by Tom Gauld (5)
Orange by Ichigo Takano (5) ⇧
Panther by Brecht Evens (5)

21.) The Fix by Nick Spencer, Steve Lieber and Ryan Hil (4) ⇩
Hellboy in Hell by Mike Mignola and Dave Stewart (4) ⇩
I Am a Hero by Kengo Hanazawa (4) ⇧
The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg (4) ⇩
Princess Jellyfish
by Akiko Higashimura (4) ⇧
The Sheriff of Babylon by Tom King and Mitch Gerads (4) ⇩
A Silent Voice by Yoshitoki Ōima (4) ⇧

…and then there would be lots of titles found on three or fewer lists.

The problem with this ranking method is, it gives equal weight to a comic that is ranked #1 and one that is ranked #20. With unnumbered best-of lists, the problem is that a comic included on a top 5 list is given equal weight to one in a top 30 list. Therefore I suggest to assign points, based on the list with the highest number of comics (in this case, NPR and B&N Comics with 30 each). For titles on numbered lists, each title is given 30 points minus the respective rank, plus 1 because otherwise a comic on #30 would get no points at all. So e.g. a comic on the top spot gets 30 points, a comic on #7 gets 24 points, and so on. For unnumbered lists, all comics get 30 points minus the total number of comics on the respective list, plus 1 because otherwise no points would be given for a top 30 list. Each title in a top 10 list, for instance, gets 21 points, while a comic in a top 20 list gets 11 etc. Here’s the top 25 ranking based on this ‘new’ method:

1.) The Vision by Tom King, Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Jordie Bellaire (295 points)

2.) March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell (245)

3.) Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang and Matt Wilson (221)

4.) Patience by Daniel Clowes (190)

5.) Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart (170)

6.) Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda (162)

7.) Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier (152)

8.) Rolling Blackouts by Sarah Glidden (139)

9.) Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (129)

10.) The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew (128)

11.) The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and Matthew Wilson (126)

12.) The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North and Erica Henderson (109)

13.) Panther by Brecht Evens (102)

14.) Orange by Ichigo Takano (93) ⇧

15.) The Sheriff of Babylon by Tom King and Mitch Gerads (89) ⇩

16.) Goodnight Punpun by Inio Asano (88) ⇧

17.) The Fix by Nick Spencer, Steve Lieber and Ryan Hil (85) ⇩
Hellboy in Hell by Mike Mignola and Dave Stewart (85) ⇩

19.) A Silent Voice by Yoshitoki Ōima (84) ⇧

20.) Dark Night by Paul Dini and Eduardo Risso (77) ⇩

21.) Hot Dog Taste Test by Lisa Hanawalt (73) ⇩

22.) Megg & Mogg in Amsterdam by Simon Hanselmann (66) ⇩

23.) Un océan d’amour by Wilfrid Lupano and Grégory Panaccione (63) ⇩

24.) The Legend of Wonder Woman by Renae De Liz and Ray Dillon (62) ⇩

25.) Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro (61) ⇩
Midnighter and Apollo by Steve Orlando, Fernando Blanco and Romulo Fajardo Jr. (61) ⇩

The advantages of this second meta list become apparent: there are fewer ties, showing that e.g. Patience is far more popular than Monstress even though they are both on the same rank on the first list. Rosalie Lightning and Monstress even swap their relative positions, because the latter was included in more lists but on lower ranks. The biggest surprise, though, is that Megg & Mogg makes almost makes the top 20 in the 2nd meta list – it is found on only three lists, but always on high ranks – whereas Black Panther disappears (or more precisely, drops out of the top 25 to rank 27 28).

Personally I find it interesting (and rather sad) that only six seven lists (Goodreads, Derek’s at The Comics Alternative, Amazon, Graphixia, Comic Report, Comicgate and Chicago Public Library) included a manga along with non-manga comics. Apart from Orange, Punpun, and A Silent Voice, the only other manga further down on the meta list, due to their inclusion in two or three lists four or fewer lists, are Princess Jellyfish (35), Assassination Classroom by Yūsei Matsui (36), One-Punch Man by Yusuke Murata and One (34 37), and Wandering Island by Kenji Tsuruta (49) I Am a Hero (40), plus a few others that didn’t make the top 50.

The two three highest-ranked German comics just missed the top 30: Madgermanes by Birgit Weyhe (32), Röhner by Max Baitinger (tied for 32), and Didi & Stulle by Fil (34 37).

These are the lists I considered:

Adventures in Poor Taste (manga), Amazon, Autostraddle, Barnes & Noble: New Manga / Ongoing Manga / Comics & Graphic Novels, The Beat (multiple mentions only), Best and Worst Manga of 2016 Results – Comic-Con International (first 4 categories only), Chicago Public Library, ComFor (German), Comicgate (German), Comic Report (German; multiple mentions only), ComicsAlliance, The Comics Alternative (counting Andy’s and Derek’s as two separate lists), Forbes, Goodreads, Graphixia (first 2 categories only), The Guardian, High-Low (Rob Clough), How To Love Comics, io9NPR, Odyssey (Rachel Freeman), PastePublishers Weekly (Best Books 2016, ‘Comics’ category), Rolling Stone (German), School Library Journal, Sumikai (German), Slate, Tagesspiegel (German), Unwinnable, Vox.com, Vulture, Washington Post, Women Write About Comics.

Did I overlook a noteworthy list? Tell me in the comments.