I read comic books. I read a lot of comic books. But you'll notice that I don't really review them that often. It's not that I consider comic books to be less of an art than "book" books, or that graphic novels are so different from novels that they can't be featured in a book blog. Most graphic novels aren't stand alone stories - they're usually part of a series - and I just haven't figured out the best way to review them. Should I look at each volume individually? That would be difficult, since each volume typically ends on a cliffhanger and you're left with an incomplete story. Should I review a series only as a completed whole? Does that mean I would have to wait until all 30+ volumes of the series is released? That could take decades. Should I, then, batch the volumes? Maybe review 3-5 volumes at a time? Try and review them by plot lines?
I have no idea what the proper solution would be, so my way of dealing with it has been to mostly ignore graphic novels in this blog unless it is a single volume, self-contained story or collection of stories. But over the years I've stumbled across some really fantastic books, so after some thought I've picked out ten series to showcase. Some of them have ended, while others are still churning out new books at a regular pace. I've tried to include that information when I can. I don't want to say this is a top-10 list, exactly, just some of my favorites that I think cover a decent variety of topics and writing styles.
In no particular order:
FOR HORROR FANS...
Parasyte by Hitoshi Iwaaki
Original Japanese edition: 10 volumes, 1990-1995.
First American release, published by Tokyopop: 12 volumes, late 90s-early 2000s. (out of print)
Second American release, published by Del Ray Manga: 8 volumes, 2007-2009.
(Note: I read the Tokyopop translation, so I use the names that they created for the characters. If you read the Del Rey translation, it is closer to the original Japanese.)
Plot: On a quiet night, mysterious aliens come to earth and begin stealing the bodies of humans by taking over their brains. The creatures then take over the lives of their host, while secreting devouring normal humans in a brutal bloodbath. However, one of these parasites fails in his mission: when he attempts to enter the body of Shinichi Izumi the teenager stops him, and instead of taking over the brain the alien is stuck in Shin's arm. (In Japanese, the parasite was called "Migi" because he took over Shin's right arm; in the Tokyopop translation, the pages were flipped so he appeared to take over Shin's left arm, so he was called "Lefty." I think Del Rey kept the name "Migi" but I'm not sure.) Shin soon realizes that other parasites are behind the gory murders around the world, and wants to stop them, but Lefty has little interest in protecting the human race. But other parasites see Shin's awareness of their existence as a threat, and he and Lefty become everyone's favorite target.
Why I like it: This is one of the most violent and graphic comic collections that I own. It's also one of the best. There's a lot of great black humor and the story is fantastically compelling.
Pet Shop of Horrors by Matsuri Akino
Original Japanese edition: 10 volumes, 1995-1998.
American release, translated by Tokyopop: 10 volumes, 2003-2005.
PSoH: Tokyo Japanese edition: running since 2005
PSoH: American release: running since 2008
Plot: When you're looking for a rare or unusual pet, only one shop can help you: Count D's specialty shop in Chinatown. Whether your creature is mythical, mystical or just plain strange, D is sure to have it. Just make sure to follow the care instructions that the Count gives you. So many rumors swirl around the shop that a detective from the LAPD has been assigned to track the Count's moves and find out what he's really selling...and why so many of his clients end up dead.
Why I Like It: Akino draws from a variety of sources for the pets in Count D's shop. One episode might involve a rare animal tied to a Chinese legend; another might be as simple as a pet dog for a lonely girl. The greater mystery of Count D's shop builds with each story, and it just gets weirder and weirder. I wasn't too crazy about the way the series ended, so I was quite happy when it was later announced that a sequel series, called Pet Shop of Horrors: Tokyo would be released. So far six volumes of the new series have been released in Japan.
FOR INTELLECTUAL SUPERHEROES...
Promethea by Alan Moore, J.H. Williams III, and Mick Gray
Original "monthly" run: 32 issues, 1999-2005. (Release schedule was really irregular, so monthly's quite a stretch, actually.)
Graphic novel collection: 5 volumes, 2001-2006.
Plot: Gosh, how to summarize this series? It was just all over the place. I guess the most basic plot would be that after researching a character called 'Promethea' through her various literary appearances, Sophia Bangs becomes the latest incarnation of Promethea. Initially she fights monsters and demons with the magic of her own creativity (Promethea becomes whatever her creator imagines her to be) but as the series continued, the battles quickly fell to the wayside and became an exploration of life, death, symbolism, mythology, metaphysics and apocalypse.
Why I Like It: This is one of the most complex and experimental comics I've ever read. Moore and the artists took the traditional comic book medium and twisted it, squished it, crumpled it up and threw it back up again. The story is just all freakin' over the place. I mean, it can be a hard read. Some of the stuff that gets talked about just whooshed right over my head the first time. But it's just a magical journey the whole way. I don't care if V for Vendetta and Watchmen get all the glory; as far as I'm concerned, this is Alan Moore's best work.
Paradise Kiss by Ai Yazawa
Original Japanese edition: 5 volumes, 2000-2004.
American release, translated by Tokyopop: 5 volumes, 2002-2004.
Plot: Yukari is just an ordinary high school student, sick of her mundane life. She goes to school and studies hard, but surely that's not all there is in this world? When a group of strange fashion designers from the local art school ask her to model for them, she initially rejects them because she's too busy, but when their mysterious leader George asks again she's instantly smitten, and agrees. With her new friends Yukari begins to open up, and begins to learn about her own dreams and desires as she plunges into the new world of creativity and passion.
Why I Like It: OK, I know that it sounds like totally lame chick lit, but the series is about so much more than that. Through the clothes and the make-up, you're really watching Yukari's growth as she stops following the expectations of her controlling mother and begins to find her own way of doing things. The art is gorgeous and distinct, several steps beyond the usual "anime" style that comes out of Japan and much closer to the figures drawn by fashion designers. Another fantastic series by this author is Nana.
FOR HISTORICAL FICTION FANS...
Red River by Chie Shinohara
Original Japanese edition: 28 volumes, 1995-2002.
American release, translated by Viz: running since 2004. Final volume projected for release in 2010.
Plot: Yuri was just an ordinary girl until a spell cast by Queen Nakia, Queen of the Hittite Empire, pulls her into the past to be used as a sacrifice. Yuri escapes, and through a series of adventures earns a reputation for being an incarnation of the goddess Ishtar. She falls in love with the crown Prince Kail, but their love is opposed at every turn by the machinations of Nakia. Many of the characters, like Kail Mursili in Hattusa and Nefertiti and Ramses in Egypt, are real people from the historical record, but of course their lives have been altered to aid the storytelling.
Why I Like It: The ancient civilizations of the Egyptians, Hittites, and Mitanni are brought to life in the Red River series, which also went by the name Anatolia Story in Japan. While there are tons of novels about the Egyptians, the Hittites are rarely found at center stage, and it is really interesting to see their world brought to life. I would love to know more about the research Shinohara did in preparation of this story, but if she's said anything it's all in Japanese.
Cantarella by You Higuri
Original Japanese edition: running since 2001
American release, translated by Go! Comi: running since 2005
Plot: The Italian Renaissance was a time of flourishing culture, and one of the greatest families at the time was the Borgia. Rumors dogged the Borgias both during their lives and the centuries after, and one of the favorite targets was Cesare Borgia and his sister, Lucrezia. A bastard child of a wickedly ambitious man, Cesare's soul is bargained to the devil in exchange for his father's elevation to Pope. Despised as a child, and alienated even as an adult, Cesare is constantly in danger of losing his soul to the demons at war inside him, who have waited since birth to devour him.
Why I Like It: I'm a sucker for historical fiction, and while this story can be quite melodramatic at times it's just a lot of fun. Higuri uses very delicate lines to create her characters, and her devotion to portraying the rich elegance of the Renaissance makes the pages a visual feast.
...OK. This was supposed to be a 'quick' update, but it's taking a lot longer than I expected. The remaining four comics - possibly with one or two bonus titles tossed in - will have to go up on Thursday.
I also didn't expect the list to be dominated by so many Japanese series. Hmmm. That's interesting.
Feel free to add your own "must-read" series in the comments, guys!