Top Ten Manga Releases of 2009

Ah, the Top Ten lists. My favorite time of the year. (^_^) This is when I get to look back on the past twelve months and pick out the best of the best in the world of anime and manga.

This year, I’m giving each category (manga, anime, and companies) its own special post. Along with listing the top ten new entries, I will also pick out one “No Thank You” title, a series that will probably show up on other critics lists, but I will purposely point out that it is not included on mine. Likewise, I’ll also pick one “Honorable Mention” selection, a series that is not necessarily manga or anime, but I feel really should be included on this “Best of” list.

The criteria for manga is simple – the first volume of a series had to have been released in the US at some point in 2009. This means no re-releases are included (sorry, Yotsuba&!) and neither are continuing series (sorry, With the Light).

My 2009 manga list is going to look a little different from my 2008 list. Since I started doing manga reviews this year, I got exposed to a lot of series that I probably would have never picked up on my own. I don’t think I would have normally included a shojo title, but CMX Manga has released a number a good ones this year, and I included two of them on this list.

There is also no doubt that 2009 belonged to just one manga artist who blew away all the critics this year, and I am no exception. But more on that as we get closer to the #1 spot… Let’s get this thing started!

10) Ballad of the Shinigami (CMX Manga, June 9, 2009)

This manga adaptation of the light novel follows Momo, the cutest little shinigami (a “God of Death” or grim reaper) that you have ever seen. It is not so much of a serialized series as it is a collection of short stories that Momo watches in the shadows as the human drama plays out in front of her in the world of the living.

What really got to me about this series was the way that artist Asuka Izumi managed to always get me with a surprised ending to each of the four stories included in this first volume. Even though I was not particularly into the story as I was reading on, by the time I came to the end of each chapter, I thought to myself, “Wow, I like that. I really liked that!”

Read my full review of volume 1

9) Pig Bride (Yen Press, April 21, 2009)

Rich boy Si-Joon made a promise as a little boy to wed Mu-Yeon, a mysterious little girl he encounters deep in the forest. Mu-Yeon is said to be cursed with a spell that turns her ugly, so she is forced to wear a pig mask to cover his face. The only way to break the spell is for her to marry Si-Joon, which the two children do.

Writing the encounter and marriage as nothing more than a dream, the boy is surprised on his 16th birthday when his bride returns, pig mask and all. Now he has to keep the magical girl a secret while still maintaining a public face as the most popular boy of his high school.

This Korean comic was the highlight of reading Yen Plus magazine for me every month. An absolutely charming and hilarious fairy tale subtlety introduced me to an Asian culture and folklore that we rarely see by just reading Japanese comics. I also loved the pretty character designs, and I can’t wait to see that mask come off of the pig bride because I’m sure she will end up being the cutest of the bunch.

8) Deka Kyoshi (CMX Manga, November 17, 2009)

Detective Toyama is assigned to investigate the apparent suicide of an elementary school teacher. He goes undercover as a teacher himself and fills in for the victim’s class of fifth grade students. He quickly discovers Makoto, a strange boy who seems to be an outcast and bullied by his classmates. But it turns out that the reason why Makoto is so strange is because he has a special gift. He is able to look at people and see all their stresses and worries manifest into hideous demons and monsters. So with the help of the kind undercover detective, the two work together to fix the problems that plague these early adolescent students.

I really got to give manga artist credit Tomio Baba for being able to recapture the retro look and feel of shonen manga from the 80’s in this modern comic. And with the nice looking art comes a simple and sweet story that tackles the hardships of early adolescence. Every chapter focuses on one 5th grader in particular who is suffering from some problem not too far from the problems that children face in real life. Not being afraid to tackle these tough issues is what earns Kyoshi a spot on this list this year.

Read my full review of volume 1.

No Thank You! (biggest disappointment of the year)

Detroit Metal City (VIZ Media, June 9, 2009)

Soichi wants nothing more than to be the best squeaky clean folk singer to ever come from Japan. Well, the good news is that he does get a career in music, but the bad news is that it is as the front man of Detroit Metal City, a hardcore heavy metal band. Instead of singing acoustic songs about ponies and sunshine, he’s wearing KISS-inspired make-up and singing songs about rape, murder, and more rape.

You get it? He’s really a nice guy off stage, but when he’s on stage, he’s a brutal metal head.

And that’s all that Detroit Metal City is. That one joke repeated again and again and again. There is no variety, there’s no development, nothing changes! One joke is repeated ad nauseam,  and it gets very old very quickly. I have no idea why everyone raves about DMC because this series blows.

7) A Drifting Life (Drawn and Quarterly, April 14, 2009)

Clocking in at 840 pages, A Drifting Life is a massive autobiography that details the life of pioneering manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi. We get to see how he got into manga as a child by entering contests, how he met his hero Osamu Tezuka, how he got his first gigs in the industry, and finally, how he took part in revolutionizing the manga industry in the 1950′s.

While the comic is not necessarily the easiest or most entertaining comic to read, you have to admire the scope of this ambitious project. Tatsumi put his heart into these 800+ pages chronicling his life, and it is really worth checking out if you’re really into manga.

6) The Lizard Prince (CMX Manga, December 1, 2009)

Canary is a young princess who has been betrothed to Heath, the prince of a nearby kingdom. But Heath is a real jerk, and he has no desire to wed the girl. So he conjures up a plan to mess with the girl’s head. Heath has a pet talking lizard. With a little bit of magic, he switches bodies with the reptile and then forces his pet to go on a date with the girl in his place.

But it turns out that the lizard was quite the gentlemen, and Canary ends up falling head over heels for him on their first date. The prince is royally pissed that his mean plan did not work out, so he decides to take matters into his own hands and expose the princess to what was really happening. How will Canary react when she finds out her true love was really a lizard?

Yes, this is the second series from Asuka Izumi that makes it onto my list this year, and it is because she got me once again with those surprise endings.  The first chapter ends with such a twist that it changes the tone of the rest of the comic, and I highly recommend avoiding any plot summary or the description on the back of the book as it will spoil it for you.

On top of that, this comic is adorable, especially with the character of the lizard. Izumi draws him as a very simple cartoonish figure that looks more like a worm than a lizard. This ends up contrasting the traditional shojo look of all the other characters in a fun and humorous way. Add on his kind and sweet personality, and you can’t help but to also be charmed by the lizard prince..

Read my full review of volume 1

5) Samurai Harem: Asu no Yoichi (Tokyopop, June 2, 2009)

After learning all he can about martial arts from his father, the 17-year-old Yoichi moves from his secluded mountain village to study at the Ikaruga family dojo in the big city. But Yoichi has more to worry about than just getting used to high school and big city life – it turns out that Ikaruga family consists of four rather attractive young girls. How will this naive country bumpkin deal with these unruly females?

This is probably not going to show up on most other “best of” lists this year, and those critics probably got turned off by the English title alone. But don’t judge this book by it’s cover, Samurai Harem is actually one of the funniest comics I read this year. It takes all the best elements of Love Hina and School Rumble, and then combines them together with perfect comedic timing and just the right amount of fan service. The harem genre very rarely has good material, but this is one title that hits on every level it is going for.

4) Little Fluffy Gigolo Pelu (Last Gasp, September 1, 2009)

Pelu is not a dog. He is not a cat. He’s a puffy creature from an alien planet who lives with a carnivorous space hippo and a ton of beautiful naked women. After Pelu’s sister gives birth to a baby, he learns about how babies are born on this alien planet and how he, as a puff ball, is unable to have one. But Pelu longs for a baby and will not accept this predicament. So he runs away to the planet Earth in search of an ideal mate. And what follows is a series of short episodes as Pelu pursues one screwed up Earth woman after another.

If you are familiar with artist Junko Mizuno, you know exactly what to expect going into this book. Her combination of sugar-coated pop art portraying extreme sex and violence is so distinct and powerful. It is a shocking and seriously f@#$ed up place to explore, and it is most certainly not suitable for every manga fan. But if you’re into that sort of thing, then Mizuno is the pinnacle of manga guilty pleasures, and I am pleased to report that she delivers her magic once again in Pelu.

Read my complete review of volume 1

Honorable Mention (not quite manga, but needs to be on this list)

Sayonara, Mr. Fatty! (Vertical, July 14, 2009)

Yeah, this is not really manga, but this is the only book that actually changed my life in 2009.

Gainax founder Toshio “Otaking” Okada was a 5′7” Japanese man who weighed 260 pounds. Fed up with being fat all his life, he finally found a diet plan that worked for him. Over the course of a year, the Otaking was able to lose 110 pounds to finally have a normal weight for his body type. He wrote this book and described his diet plan in 5 simple steps.

By the time I got around to reading Fatty last summer, I was six foot tall and 243 pounds. I decided to give his diet plan a chance, and I ended up slimming down to 216 after only three months, losing 27 pounds. I’m proud to say that I’ve lost another 10 pounds since posting my review, and I’m getting closer each day to being a healthy, normal weight. I can completely cite this book as being the catalyst for this major change in my life.

3) Pluto (VIZ Media, February 17, 2009)

When Mont-Blanc, one of the world’s most beloved robotic heroes, is suddenly found destroyed and dismembered, robotic detective Gesicht begins his investigation on a series of “murders” involving both robots and humans. But his investigation takes an unexpected turn when he begins to suspect a robot as the perpetrator of this crime. Since robot law states that “no robot shall do harm to humans”, just how dangerous could this rogue bot be and how safe is Gesicht himself from being the next victim?

After VIZ released the final volume of Monster in December 2008, the self-imposed embargo on Urasawa’s other manga series was lifted and the floodgates opened for him to dominate the manga scene in 2009.

And did he ever!

Pluto is Urasawa’s remake of a series of episodes in the classic Tezuka series Astro Boy.  What makes it so brilliant is the vivid sci-fi world created when Urasawa takes on Tezuka taking on Isaac Asimov. You get the best ideals and philosophies from all three writers blended into one imaginative and very exciting story.

On top of that, you have Urasawa’s remarkable manga style. He creates so much life and emotion into his cartoon characters that even the robots feel like the most realistic people ever drawn on paper. And not to give away any spoilers, but the third volume contains such an unconventional manga technique that I was left speechless when I reached it.

Bravo, Mr. Urasawa. Bravo.

2) Sayonara Zetsubo-sensei (Del Rey, February 24, 2009)

To call high school teacher Nozomu Itoshiki a “pessimist” would be an understatement. The guy is the embodiment of despair and sorrow, and we begin this series with his attempted suicide on a cherry blossom tree. His plan is foiled when Kafuka Fuura, his student and the bubbly embodiment of optimism and joy, discovers him and convinces him to stay alive.

From that point on, we are gradually introduced to Itoshiki’s classroom full of student with highly exaggerated personalities and hang-ups. There’s the shut in, the OCD chick, the internet flamer, the illegal immigrant, the stalker, and of course, the completely normal girl with nothing unusual about her.

What makes this series place so high on the list is just how smart, sophisticated, and concise the humor is in this work of Japanese satire, especially for a shonen series. For example, one chapter focuses on Commodore Perry, the real-life historical American who “opened” the ports and trade route between Japan and the west. But when Perry enters Itoshiki’s classroom, he goes around opening everything – books, lockers, the swimming pool, and the plastic seal on girlie magazines.

But of course, whenever you open the plastic seal on those girlie mags, you’ll always be disappointed with what’s inside. So maybe it’s best that you don’t open that, just like how you shouldn’t open Pandora’s box, email with virus attachments, or the door to your parent’s bedroom.

It is creative play on words like that mixed in with biting pop culture and social commentary that speaks much deeper than any other manga out there, and thus involves much larger “laugh out loud” moments while reading it. And although Del Rey gets a little sloppy in their English adaptation around the third volume, they do an amiable job on the first two volumes.

1) 20th Century Boys (VIZ Media, February 17, 2009)

In 1969, Kenji and a group of his friends build a little clubhouse in the middle of a field. Out of boredom, the boys write the “Book of Prophecies”, a sci-fi scripture on how they become super-heroes who protect the world from an evil organization in the year 2000.

Nearly 30 years later, the now adult Kenji begins noticing that everything they wrote in that “Book of Prophecies” was starting to come true. So sets up an epic saga as Kenji reconnects with his old friends to figure out what they wrote in that book 30 years ago, and just which one of them is trying to make it a reality.

I admit, 20th Century Boys and Pluto were neck and neck all year as to which Urasawa series would take the top spot on my list. After reading the first five volumes of both series, and seeing the first two movie adaptations of one, I decided that Boys is the better of the two.

Like Pluto, 20th Century Boys has a creative sci-fi setting front by a cast of interesting characters. But the one element that sends it over that final hurdle is just the huge scope of this mystery spanning over three timeframes, the past (1969), the present (2000, the time of the manga’s publication), and the future (2015). In order to answer questions in one time and setting, you have to explore the others. This creates an amazing new dynamic to mystery storytelling that is just as exciting as it is unpredictable.

20th Century Boys will eventually consist of 24 volumes, but it will never get stale. You will be fully immersed into this epic adventure, and you will be begging to read more with each page that VIZ puts outs. That is why this is the best new manga release of 2009.

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