This will work a lot like our “Best Comics of the Decade” list, but with a few notable tweaks.
- IPs must be brand new to the Japanese and/or American manga markets between the years of 2010-19. This means even though One Piece, Mobile Suit Gundam, and Ultraman all have great new books out, they’re disqualified for being continuing series.
- The list will be split into two categories: Blockbusters, each of which is so successful as to be a nearly mandatory pick, and Personal Selections, which are smaller books that may have slipped under the radar. This way, everyone gets represented.
- I’m not going to ask Dave to proof against Japanese titles, so we’ll all just have to accept the anglicized versions.
Attack on Titan – Hajime Isayama
Looking back, Attack on Titan seems like a guaranteed hit. Its combination of the kaiju, mecha, zombie, and steampunk genres — and with just a dash of Junji Ito body horror — seems like a marketing slam dunk. At least, on paper it does.
But writing a story about enormous, naked people with blissful faces eating townsfolk sure seems like a harder sell. As does the idea of a grim child army stuck with protecting their cowardly elders. “Worst” of all, though, there’s the cannibalism itself which critics would love to tell you is inspired by Francisco de Goya’s “Saturn Devouring his Son,” but has way more in common with the Japanese vore sub-genre than it does the 19th-century Spanish painter.
That is a crazy thing to make popular. And yet, amazingly, Hajime Isayama did just that.
My Hero Academia – Kōhei Horikoshi, Hirofumi Neda, et al
In this manga, superpowers aren’t the exception, they’re the norm. 80% of the population has them, to be precise, and children are taught at a young age to control their “quirks” to best play their role as hero (or villain.)
Izuku Midoriya is one of the unfortunate 20% born without quirks. That is until a chance encounter with the legendary hero All Might grants Midoriya powers for the first time. But he’s late in getting them, and now must learn to control them before his entrance exam into U.A. High School.
My Hero Academia is filled with heroics to be sure, but it’s also about appreciating what you have and valuing people who were not so fortunate.
One-Punch Man – ONE, Yusuke Muratta, et al.
The world is under near-constant kaiju attack and, as a consequence, it’s overrun by superheroes. In another book, this might be the focus of the title (certainly My Hero Academia isn’t too far off from this.) But instead, ONE’s smash hit series uses all of that rich narrative potential as more of a background narrative, the sort of thing that might run on a television in the background of an action or horror film.
The real story is the main character, Saitama, the titular “One-Punch Man.” A being of immense, almost godly powers. Powers which he earned by doing push-ups. This story of satire and mundanity is the core of the book, along with the genuine and nearly existential tragedy of a person looking for meaning in a world without challenge.
The Promised Neverland – Kaiu Shirai, Mamoru Kanbe, et al.
What begins as a victorian story about children in a bucolic orphanage quickly descends into a vicious horror story filled with blood and death. I haven’t seen a series this happy to kill off characters since The Walking Dead, and to be honest, this one might be worse since the ones doing the dying here are adorable kids. The horror is a mixture of many things, from Hieronymus Bosch inspired vistas to Cube inspired death traps. But the real shock is how the orphanage and Hell both tie back into Peter Pan.
But telling you how would spoil those traps.
It often seems that horror gets to muse about psychology with a freedom that few other genres are allowed to enjoy.
Tokyo Ghoul exemplifies this in a number of ways as it explores the life and half-death of Ken Kaneki, a college student who went on the blind date from hell and was turned into a half-monster.
The whole “one foot in each world” story mechanic is pretty common, but it’s somehow surprising here. Ghoul isn’t really about “good vs. bad” morality drama or “city vs. pastoral” life disputes. It’s about what is and is not human. It raises up to look from a societal level and ask where does that line fall, and can it be crossed twice?
Black Blizzard – Yoshihiro Tatsumi
I’m endlessly fascinated with the comics of World War II and just after. The cultural upheaval, pride, and fear all being helped or hindered by classic conventions and governmental restrictions. The conflict and symbiosis between emotion and editorial are mesmerizing to me.
That’s why Black Blizzard was right up my alley. It’s both a perfect reflection of the times and a look forward to the films of Seijun Suzuki.
Set in the 1950s, Black Blizzard tells the tale of two convicts — a pianist in for murder, and five-time convict and cardsharp — who escape from their prison transport. The rest of the story becomes them telling stories to one another while they put off making a grisly choice.
I must confess, this story was originally published in 1956. But as it’s been out of print for about 60 years, I think it qualifies as “new.” Also, it’s a story about criminals, so I feel that the rules simply don’t apply here.
Biomega – Tsutomu Nihei
I love cyberpunk more than members of my own family. I love this genre so much I would break into libraries to gift extra copies of Gibson and Stephenson books to their wanting shelves. These neon-stained worlds with their daft lingo and even more insane fashion. I would send ransom notes to strangers, demanding they read Bleeding Edge before I hack… something. I haven’t worked that part out.
So really, no one should be shocked by the inclusion of this book. But I must confess, it’s not here for the characters or concepts. Or the plot or dialog. Not the fashion or tech either. It’s not even here for the action (though that’s often exciting.)
Biomega makes the list because Nihei has a unique magic for building physical spaces. The cities, alleys, highways, and rooms of Biomega look amazing. No, scratch that, they look literally incredible. I read this book and could feel the crunch of asphalt under my boots and the wind from electric cars in my mohawk. And since megacities are such a draw for cyberpunk, this talent alone makes the book worth the price of admission.
Bunny Drop – Yumi Unita
This book takes the well-worn trope of “full-grown man becomes unexpected dad” and actually makes something of it. That achievement alone should put it on any list.
But there’s more here. Unita does a masterful job of turning both 30-year-old Baikichi and his new daughter, Rin, into real human beings. The dialogue between them feels natural and interesting, and their conflicts feel true to life (if embellished her and there because Manga.)
This book feels moving without being cheap, sweet with being saccharine, and avoids every cliche, pitfall, and trope of the genre in order to deliver a story about two people being forced into a familial bond.
Dr. Stone – Riichiro Inagaki, Boichi
There’s a flash in the sky, and everything above the surface of the Earth is turned to stone. It’s now 3700 years later, and two children have awoken to find their world in ruins and must now both look for other survivors and fight to make it to tomorrow.
The story from there gets fascinating. Both main characters haven’t even finished high school, and watching them attempt to problem-solve with only classroom instruction to go by is a fascinating storytelling conceit. It’s a bit like Castaway, only the only tools they have to work with are stone.
Boichi, hot off his art duties with Origin, brings more of his particular style and its mixture of eastern and western influences and hypnotic details.
Inuyashiki – Hiroya Oku
Aging salaryman Ichiro Inuashiki doesn’t so much have “family” as he has genetic relatives. At best. The old man spent his children’s respective childhoods chasing after success and respect, and now, in his final years, he is ignored. He cannot even get their attention long enough to tell them he’s dying of stomach cancer.
And all of that is before the aliens kill Ichiro.
The book then spirals out in some crazed form of logic as the aliens, desperate not to be noticed by the earthlings, attempt to make a replacement for Ichiro. A foolish task, since the aliens know nothing of our biology. Thus their best try is to create the thing they do know: immensely powerful robots, only this time in a shirt, tie, and old man glasses.
Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer – Satoshi Mizukami
By my best estimates, 130% of Japanese media contains at least one character who presents like a sassy, female high school student but is, in fact, a demon older than time. Or some variation on the theme.
This has never been a genre or a trope I’ve much enjoyed.
Yet Satoshi Mizukami takes these cliches — devil girl, generic magic dude, bizarre interpretations of Christian stories — and makes something satirical and new out of them. Our heroes are not Square-Enix perfect but instead are D-students, the unemployed, and the burnouts.
And giving those kinds of hapless idiots magic is precisely the kind of hilarity that kept me going.
I Want to Eat Your Pancreas – Yoru Sumino
Don’t let the title fool you, this coming-of-age story is one of my easiest recommendations on the whole list.
The story follows two school students, one a painfully introverted young lad, the other an extrovert girl who’s secretly dying of a pancreatic disease. But rather than dish out the standard Fault in Our Stars story of beautiful heartache, Yoru Sumino delivers a story that is simultaneously life-affirming and deeply, surprisingly funny.
The title itself comes from an old Japanese remedy which apparently suggested that if a family member is suffering a bodily affliction then they should eat the same body part of a loved one. And the way that idea starts as frightening, turns funny, and becomes like a sweet inclusion (these two being loved ones) perfectly plots their relationship and the stages of grief.
My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness / My Solo Exchange Diary – Kabi Nagata
Comics are the most diverse they’ve ever been, a fact that Dave and I have been praising every chance we’ve gotten. I mean it sincerely when I say that I’m excited to see the industry so healthy that it can produce popular, well-selling books that have zero interest in catering to the likes of Dave and I. This is awesome!
However, this also means that maybe we’re not the guys to sell you Kabi Nagat’s autobiographical masterpiece. So instead, please let the marvelous Megan Purdy do that.
“I read it in one sitting too! And (…) I was so surprised that there wasn’t that big emotional/sexual catharsis that one comes to expect from sexual memoirs or coming of age erotica. I guess that speaks to how unusual the book is–it feels like something singular–and how good Nagata is that she goes so against the grain of what readers are accustomed to and still delivers something so…satisfying? In the end there was a kind of catharsis, for her and for me.”
Tropic of the Sea – Satoshi Kon
Some people are simply born to create art, natural to it as if born with it as a first language. Satoshi Kon was that kind of person, a man who made brilliant, prescient work that was so perfect it felt somehow inevitable. Work like Perfect Blue and Paprikia, both are unparalleled masterpieces in animation.
But before this, Satoshi made Manga. Tropic of the Sea, published in 2010, feels like a foretelling of the tsunami that would hit Japan the next year. The artwork is spine chilling, like CNN footage in its enormous and impersonal destruction.
Tragically, Kon died in 2015. But finding this “new” work had me excited like a kid again.
World Trigger – Daisuke Ashihara
Somewhere deep in the DNA of World Trigger is a shonen manga. An adventure book geared at least partly (though I’d argue it’s often primarily) toward young children. It’s a genre that relies heavily on classic tropes and expected conventions, to the point it can feel like a dogma.
This is why it’s common to hear fans describe shonen as “the place you start and then move on from.”
This is what makes Ashihara’s book so interesting. It begins with the classic starting point (thick-headed young boy is inconvenienced by having to save the world. Makes serious friends along the way, adding humorous contrast.) But from there it rips out every expectation to make a series that feels more like growing up than telling the 3-millionth joke about eating a lot. No more impassioned speeches about protecting friends or bravery. No more permanent idiocy.
Characters get actual motivations and grow smarter, even wiser. It’s a monumental change for the form, and one I’m especially happy to see.
Final Thoughts on this List
Manga has seen big decades before. The success of Otomo and Shirow’s films translating into sales of their books. The partnership between Borders and Tokyo Pop, and the boom decade that caused. Toonami, G4 TV, and the rise of geeky cable channels. The list goes on.
But I think this decade will be marked as the time when the manga market tried to make serious creative changes.
Seeing popular franchises like One-Punch Man and My Hero Academia acknowledge Western comics feels huge. As does My Lesbian Experience and World Trigger defying tradition. In a sense, it reminds me of Otomo and Shirow, both of whom revolutionized the artform by daring to go outside the prescriptive margins.
Ultimately, every art form becomes, well, formalized. But this decade feels like a new direction, with Manga looking outside of itself and its strict adherence to norms and instead of going out and exploring even greater possibilities.