by Hidekaz Himaruya
Once upon a time, the Roman Empire ruled the Mediterranean. But one day, the Roman Empire simply…disappeared. In his place stands his grandson, Italy – but Italy isn’t interested in building a great empire. He’s perfectly content to flirt, paint and eat all the best foods. When World War I strikes, Italy has no idea what to do, so he hides in a tomato crate until he is discovered by Germany, who came prepared to fight the heir to the Roman Empire. They become allies – or does Germany become Italy’s babysitter? – and as World War II approaches, they join with Japan to create the Axis Alliance. But meanwhile, America, England, France, China and Russia are creating their own alliance to strike back!
Hetalia has got to be one of the strangest graphic novel concepts I’ve come across this year. The various countries of the world are personified into young men who adopt the traits and stereotypes associated with their culture. Thus, Italy is obsessed with women and food, America is loud and brash, and Japan is quiet and refined. The book is theoretically focused on the relationships of the countries during World War II, but the plot is extremely episodic and wanders all over the place, exposing quirks about the world’s cultures.* At times, it was surprisingly educational, too – the book actually helped to clarify the wars and nations of 17th and 18th century Europe in a silly, entertaining way.
Y’know that song from Avenue Q, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist?”** If not, here’s some sample lyrics from the chorus:
Ethnic jokes might be uncouth,
But you laugh because they're based on truth.
Don't take them as personal attacks.
Everyone enjoys them - so relax.
This is the underlying sentiment of the manga. Everyone in the world is quirky and strange, so have fun with it! I mean, I love the Hetalia version of America. He’s obsessed with being the hero, he constantly pigs out on soda and hamburgers, and his youthful enthusiasm wears out the other, older countries, but they appreciate his positive outlook and pioneering spirit. Seems accurate enough to me!
The comics themselves vary considerably in quality from one panel to the next. Hetalia started up as a webcomic by a student, and while some of the stories were cleaned up and redrawn for the print version, not all of them were. So one sequence might have crisp and clear inks, screentones and perfectly symmetrical panels, while the next will be drawn with pencils and sloppily shadowed with MS Paint! These unpolished comics have a rawness that is fun, but when reproduced on paper they can be difficult to read, too.
Hetalia was initially brought to America and translated by Tokyopop, but after they closed up shop in the US the price of Hetalia skyrocketed. Individual volumes were selling at $50 or $75 on Amazon.com! Earlier this year, Rightstuf.com struck an agreement with Tokyopop and began printing more copies of Hetalia on demand, so the books can once again be found at a reasonable price. It’s a very funny series and definitely worth checking out.
4 out of 5 stars
To read more about Hetalia Vol. 1 , buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.
* For example, in one of his footnotes Himaruya notes that in America, there are ice cream trucks patrolling neighborhoods so that one can always easily find ice cream. It never occurred to me that this was particularly noteworthy, but to the Japanese author it’s apparently rather fantastic.
** Also, go look it up on Youtube. It’s a HILARIOUS song and Avenue Q is an awesome musical.