The old saying goes, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” – but what about a title?
Assassination Classroom is a manga whose title initially repelled me. Even with its bright and simple covers, I looked at a volume, read the back description, and wondered if this was another manga like Death Note. You know, that sort of intensely serious story, full of extended monologues about power and authority, each chapter twisting into the next. Because, after reading Death Note, I was satisfied; I didn’t need another version of that grim-dark comic book. With a title like “Assassination Classroom,” how could this series be anything else?
Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Assassination Classroom has an overall story, yes, and it certainly has intrigue: spies and soldiers working in the shadows of government organizations, with alphabet soup names. But mostly, it’s a gag manga. Yes, the manga about a class of teens attempting to kill their omnipotent teacher is, shockingly, mostly about dumb jokes and silly characters learning about themselves.
One day, the moon suddenly explodes. The culprit makes himself known to the world with a declaration: I will destroy the world in one year’s time, unless I am stopped. He is a monster of superhuman strength and speed, who then demands the world government let him…teach a class of lovable misfits? Did I mention the monster is tentacled, bright yellow, and wears a classical teacher outfit with a robe and square hat?
In another author’s hands, this premise would be deathly serious in tone. But here, author Yusei Matsui takes all that global turmoil and high stakes and makes it super light-hearted. Koro-sensei (a pun on “to kill” in Japanese) has threatened to destroy the world, yes, but he also wants to actually teach these kids – not only about science, math, and literature, but growing up and being a better person, too. And uh, also firearms, subterfuge, and assassination techniques, as he playfully dodges their barrages of bullets, all while offering praise and critiques.
Over 21 volumes, we meet the students and fellow staff at the school, watching them react to this absurdity. Nagisa, the closest thing to a protagonist we have, was bullied for his small frame, but under Koro-sensei’s tutelage, he learns how to accept himself and be confident. Mr. Karasuma is a military officer charged with overseeing Koro-sensei, but as he teaches both gym and martial arts, he softens into a capable instructor. Even Miss Jelavic, a trained assassin disguised as an English instructor, learns that education is a two-way street – as you teach, you learn more than you’d imagine.
Yes, it is corny! Underneath the global plot to destroy a banana-colored octopus, the story is heartfelt and honest. I was fairly effected by the series’ conclusion, despite the tonal clash throughout. The simple and cartoonish art makes the characters more personable, making both the jokes and earnest conversations more meaningful. No one is some “cool” and impervious hero – they’re students and teachers, goofing off while learning how to be better than they are.
In this way, Assassination Classroom resembles a coming-of-age school story, like Ouran High School Host Club (with guns) or Naruto (but far less serious). Its title hides the lightness of plot, how quickly and jovially it moves from school trip to midterms to holiday breaks. The result is a pleasure to read, for its stream of gags and touching moments, for Koro-sensei’s silly faces and his quips of honest wisdom.
Be aware though – this is a title for older teens and adults. The violence of the series is mostly unserious, but the lives of these students and teachers sometimes share the mature themes of the best of Young Adult literature. Bullies, abuse, and family trauma are the dangers in these characters’ lives, not the moon-destroying creature who can move at Mach-20. Still, this is a comedy series first and foremost, and these more “real” themes come forth only in certain moments, and never in a way that I found triggering.
I really enjoyed my time with Assassination Classroom, and was delighted to see how wrong I was to judge this one by its title.
One of the great things about manga is the wide range of topics authors can focus on. Sure, there are still those popular power fantasy series, with heroes rising from lowly origins to take on a supreme evil. Dragon Ball Z or Kimetsu no Yaiba: Demon Slayer play a similar tune to Superman and Batman. Still, over the last few decades, comics in the West have stretched outside superheroes into new genres, like autobiography, travelogues, and other strange and unique styles of story. There’s no shortage of variety for a graphic novels reader in 2021.
But there’s one genre that the west hasn’t really explored, while manga has done so quite thoroughly: food. Yes, manga about baking, frying, cooking, and eating – they exist, and they’re quite popular, too!
More interestingly, as a genre, food manga isn’t strict about its features. In “shonen” manga, like Bleach or Naruto, there’s a specific path the hero follows, training to becoming better and overcoming new challenges to fulfill their dream. In romance manga, like Skip-Beat or Nana, our protagonist stumbles into young love, leaving us to wonder if those two crazy kids will or won’t finally kiss (until they finally do (at the very end)).
But in food manga, you can really mix any other genre – like documentary or fantasy or combat or history – with the presentation and description of some aspect of food and cooking. The results can be intensely different!
Oishinbo is a more direct sort of food manga. In each of its six volumes, its author, Tetsu Kariya, focuses on a different aspect of Japanese cuisine and food culture (helpfully described in each title). In one volume, we can learn about ramen and gyoza (fried dumplings), those two staples of Japanese street food, and in another, a deep dive into sushi and sashimi, two varieties of raw fish with rice. Of course, there are gorgeous drawings of the dishes, feeding the reader’s eyes in the same way Studio Ghibli films do. But along the way, we’re told more about the history and culture surrounding the food, in addition to the step-by-step process of making each.
But this isn’t a printed Instagram feed of cool food art – no, there is a plot! Or, at least, there are characters. Shiro Yamaoka is a journalist who has a troubled family history with cooking, but he still tries to develop the “Ultimate Menu” as a project, visiting restaurants and chefs across Japan. He is joined by Yuko Karita, his assistant, as they sample foods and consider the history of the dishes alongside their own experiences. Keep in mind: Oishinbo ran for over 30 years and 111 volumes, and these few volumes we have are an “A La Carte” compilation. As such, the overarching story has been compressed and mostly removed, resulting in these translated volumes feeling like episodes of documentary travelogue. And that’s alright by me!
Reflecting the time in which the manga started, the characters have a very 1980s aesthetic to their designs. For long-time readers of comics, the style can be nostalgic, but even for new readers, I think the clearer and less-cute style helps the manga’s focus come through much clearer. And that focus? Food is good. It’s a perfect mini-series for amateur chefs, readers new to manga, or for anyone who wants to know more about Japanese cuisine.
On the far end from the realism of Oishinbo is Delicious in Dungeon, by Ryoko Kui. Yes, that’s a silly title, but this is a very silly series – about fantasy food! One of the recent trends in anime/manga are stories featuring western-style fantasy, a la Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying, and console roleplaying video games. Delicious in Dungeon is about a party of adventurers in such a fantasy world. You have Laios, the dimwitted human knight, Marcille, the squeamish elf mage, and Chilchuck, the halfling lockpick. They’re trying to get to the bottom of the dungeon to save Laios’ sister, but man, it’s a long way down…
During one of their hungrier moments, they meet Senshi, a dwarf, who shows them the craft of cooking beasts they find (and fight) in the dungeon. Which is, as you might imagine, a strange prospect for our adventurers, who aren’t sure if they want to eat boiled mandrakes or a wyvern egg scramble. But Senshi shows them the benefits and necessity of “eating off the land,” as they can delve deeper by cooking along the way.
So we have action and fighting, as the party battles various mythical monsters. But then we get Senshi cooking their conquest over a fire, using his shield as a wok. Kui draws the process of cooking and the final dish with the same care as Kariya did in Oishinbo, but instead of buckwheat noodles, it’s tentacles. Recipes are included with each fantastical dish, making the whole thing seem both real and absolutely ridiculous. Yet, you know, that roast dragon flank does look pretty good…
These are just two examples of food manga we have at HCLS! We have other series too:If you’re looking for another fantasy cooking series, Drifting Dragons has a visual style and tone similar to Delicious in Dungeon, but a large world and character designs reminiscent of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
If you’d rather have a more cozy experience, Otherworldly Izakaya Nobu is a slice of life story of fantasy characters (I told you it was a popular topic) magically transporting into an izakaya, a sort of pub in Japan.
If you’d rather have a more cozy experience, Otherworldly Izakaya Nobu is a slice of life story of fantasy characters (I told you it was a popular topic) magically transporting into an izakaya, a sort of pub in Japan.
And if you’d rather have some competition with your food, Food Wars! is a fun shonen series, wherein chefs compete in cooking duels to see who’s the best.
Whether you’re new to comics or if you’re just hungry for something new (ha), food manga is a genre worth sampling.
Reading a multi-book series can be a bittersweet thing. On one hand, you get to spend more time in the world of the story, more time with the characters, seeing them grow and change with each volume. On the other hand, even the best series must ultimately end, or risk devolving into endless sequels with lesser and lesser impact. How does an author balance continuing a story versus ending it?
In the world of graphic novels, this is an eternal problem. For superhero comics, authors and illustrators can swap in and out, resulting in entirely different styles – sometimes, Batman is a gritty noir detective, and other times, he’s an ultra-genius rubbing elbows with omnipotent aliens. For manga, authors don’t often get replaced, but over the course of a long series, the authors themselves change, for better and for worse. Compare the first volume of Bleach with the sixtieth, and you’ll see an incredible difference in visual and narrative style. It can be jarring, particularly if you’re reading it after years (or decades) of publication.
This is why a short series can pack more impact in a few volumes. Our Dreams at Dusk is a perfect example. The author, Yuhki Kamatami, wrote twenty-three chapters, which are collected into a mere four volumes. You can hold the entirety of the tale in your hands.
And it is a tale to read, one that I didn’t want to end. Tasuku Kamane is a teen, hiding his sexual identity from his family and peers. He’s gay, and he loves his table tennis clubmate, Toma – but he can’t say anything, he can’t be himself. When his classmates discover some gay erotica on his phone, he’s driven to self-harm and worse. But at that darkest point, he meets Someone.
Someone is a person who refuses to be identified, or even really known. At the top of the town’s highest point, they appear like a spirit to Tasuku, talking to him with a quizzical honesty. They guide him to the Drop-in Center, a local hang-out spot for LGBTQ+ people, those who can’t really be themselves out in the town. It is an oasis for Tasuku, exactly what he needed at the moment he needed it.
Haruko and Saki are a lesbian couple who haven’t made their relationship public to their families, but at the Drop-in Center, they can be together with a degree of comfort. Tchaiko is an older gentleman, who makes fine coffee and plays Tchaikovsky for the group, but quietly hides his long-term relationship with his partner. And over time, we meet Shuji, a middle schooler who is wrestling with how to identify, and others, all seeking some zone in which they can be accepted.
It is not a wholly happy tale. Tasuku and the others don’t always find acceptance among their family and friends – or even each other, at times. Feelings are stepped on, and feelings are crushed. Tasuku himself even hurts others, in his growing understanding of gender, resulting in some chapters that were incredibly hard to read.
But by the end of the fourth volume, people have changed, mostly for the better. We see a small slice of each character’s journey, which will assuredly continue after closing the book. I put off reading the final volume for months, not wanting the story to end – partly because I didn’t want to discover an unhappy ending for anyone, and partly because I didn’t want it to be over. But it ends as best it can, and for that, I am grateful. Even Someone has their mystery revealed (but not the whole of it, just as they’d prefer).
There is a certain aspect of Our Dreams at Dusk that feels like checking off the boxes of the LGBTQ+ experience, ensuring the story represents some major facets of gender and sexual identity. On one hand, it can seem a bit forced, but on the other hand, I wasn’t thinking about that at all – the art carried me along, finding ways to say what words couldn’t. This is the sort of illustration that captures youth and longing, commitment and family, those experiences that are universal and those that are entirely specific to one human being. The art is sometimes fragile, and sometimes harsh, but it always finds a way to visually speak to the interior experience, in that way only masterpieces of graphic novels do.
Our Dreams at Dusk is an LGBTQ+ story, but to sell it as only that wouldn’t be right. It’s a coming of age story, and a love story, and a mystery, with comedy and tragedy laced throughout. I’ve not read anything else quite like it in manga. Its handling of its characters and LGBTQ+ issues, particularly from a Japanese perspective, are unique, and all of this is built upon an amazing art style that shows off what this medium can do.
I can’t recommend it enough – to readers of manga, of LGBTQ+ fiction, and of quality books of any stripe. Plus, as I said, it’s only four volumes! So if you’re a tad nervous about reading a graphic novel series for the first time, this is a great one to start with, if you can handle a bit of heartache along the way.
As we approach the quiet season of winter and start 2021, cozy reads will definitely be on the top of my list to recover from such an unprecedented year. You may recognize the typical books that are categorized as cozy from our adult fiction collection: fun mysteries filled with humor and intrigue, romances that capture the hearts of fans around the world, and hopeful, literary tales that keep readers optimistic. But did you know that you can find some of the best cozy reads in our graphic novel collection?
Yes, you read right! Graphic novels, which include Japanese manga and traditional comic books, are as diverse as our fiction and nonfiction collections. While their beginnings stem from comic strips in newspapers and classic superhero tales, graphic novels have expanded to include a plethora of plots that readers of all ages can enjoy. In fact, while I will always enjoy a traditional novel, I happen to be a long-time graphic novel fan.
I am excited to share some of my favorite cozy choices that will leave you smiling well after the last page:
Note: In regards to all of my series picks, my reviews are for Volume 1 only.
I find myself always missing autumn and Halloween right after they have ended! If you feel the same, then you will revel in the crisp, fall nights depicted in Pumpkinheads. You may recognize Rainbow Rowell of young adult fame with novels like Eleanor & Park and Fangirl, and I can see why she is one of the most critically acclaimed authors. Two teenagers have seasonal jobs at one of the best pumpkin patches in the country, and every Halloween they come together to revel in the best of the season. Yet, this year is different: they’re seniors in high school and getting ready to go to college next fall. What if they make their last shift an adventure they’ll never forget? With gorgeous illustrations by Faith Erin Hicks, Pumpkinheads is a nostalgic trip down memory lane for every reader who loves pumpkin patches, hayrides, apples and, of course, the crisp air of Halloween.
Keeping with the Halloween theme, I had to choose Flying Witch to be on this list. Unlike the fantastical nature of Harry Potter or the ghoulish vibes of the Sanderson Sisters from Hocus Pocus, Flying Witch evisions witches as….well, normal people, with some exceptions. Makoto Kowata is a witch-in-training who travels to Aomori, Japan to stay with her cousin and his family. A bit forgetful but also amazingly kind, Makoto navigates the new town, a relaxed lifestyle, as well as learns how to be an independent witch in the most comedic ways possible. Despite my earlier mention of Halloween, Flying Witch can be read at any time of the year since all four seasons are featured in the story. Be prepared for a fun, gentle read with a dose of magic thrown in.
Like much of the media I discover, I happened to learn of Mari Andrew and her beautiful work on Instagram. Her combination of reflections, color, and unique calligraphy drew me in immediately. When she released Am I There Yet, her work effortlessly transferred from my screen to the page. Her majestic use of words and illustrations provided me with a sense of calm and were immensely relatable to my current stage of life. While her words are very uplifting, Mari also tackles harsh realities while softening the blow with poignant moments of humor and happiness.
Traditionally, manga is characterized by magical beings, action-packed fights, and occasional monsters. However, Emma is uniquely placed in Victorian England. Kaoru takes readers on an intricate journey of forbidden romance between an intelligent but quiet maid and an up-and-coming aristocrat. While many stories begin in a similar fashion, what I enjoyed about Emma was the fascinating use of manga art to tell the story, along with the slow burn of the budding romance. If you have ever wanted to read a manga series but you are unsure of where to start, Emma would be an excellent choice for you!
In the medieval town of Eiteriach, its citizens have grown weary of the continual, basic menu. While fulfilling, it leaves something to be desired. Enter Nobu, a mysterious pub that appears almost magically one day. It becomes the talk of the town, known for its unique cuisine and the warmth of its staff. But can it persuade even the toughest customers? This was one of my favorite reads of the year. Natsuya does an excellent job drawing out the flavors of the cuisine with her art. Coupled with its low-key, heartwarming story, Otherworldly Izakaya Nobu will leave you hungry for the meals but also for the rest of the series.
A story of an unlikely childhood friendship takes plenty of unexpected turns in Jen Wang’s Stargazing. I was fully engaged with the story of Christine and Moon, two girls on the verge of becoming teenagers with different backgrounds and personalities. Heartwarming and beautiful, this graphic novel has just the right amount of topics that can relate to all ages: cultural differences, friendship, health, and even small crushes. The best part of Stargazing is that it is a perfect book for adults to read with their children and discuss afterwards. The blossoming friendship alone is enough to cozy up to this colorful read.
I tend to lean towards slice-of-life graphic novels as opposed to fantasy, but Snow White with the Red Hair is a welcome exception to my rule. For fans of the Disney classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, this series is nothing like the princess we have come to know in our childhood. Shirayuki (“Snow White” in Japanese) is a cheerful, red-haired girl living in the countryside of Tanbarun. Her red hair is so unique in the land that the prince of Tanbarun, Prince Raji, tries to force her to become his concubine. Refusing a life of serving a prince, she cuts her hair and runs away to the forest in search of a new, independent life. With many more twists and turns, this series is a treat for readers who enjoy light fantasy with a touch of female empowerment.
We could all use a little comedy every now and then, especially during these turbulent times. Abbi Jacobson of Broad City fame brings the weird, hilarious view of our bags in Carry this Book. Part faux exposé, part examination of our everyday objects, this book contains the real and imagined objects inside the bags and storage of our icons. Ever wondered what’s in Michelle Obama’s clutch or Harry Potter’s duffel bag? Well, here you go. I struggled with putting this book on the list since it is technically an art book, not a graphic novel. However, I thought it was so creatively put together, and provides stories on fictional characters as well. Abbi does a fantastic job at creating a book that gives such an intimate view of imagination, and how the things we carry everyday may share a deeper look into our personalities than we thought.
Marie Kondo has taken the world by storm with her organization tips and tricks from her published books on the KonMari method as well as her Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. So it would seem natural that she would take her methods to a narrative level with her manga book. Chiaki, a young woman in Tokyo, struggles with a lack of direction with her clutter and personal life. Through a series of lessons, Marie Kondo takes her on a magical journey of cleaning up her home and getting her life in order. I absolutely loved that this book was not only an engaging read for readers who love manga, but it also provided some major organization pointers and tricks and offered a quick introduction to the KonMari method. Double points for an engaging story and organization assistance!
To round out the list of cozy graphic novel reads, I want to end on a hopeful note. Journeys begin with hard work and that is how Akiko Higashimura’s story began in high school. Writer and artist of Princess Jellyfish and Tokyo Tarareba Girls, Akiko provides a look into her teenage beginnings of becoming a popular mangaka. So when she signs up for an art class expecting an easy path to stardom, she is rudely surprised by her militant art instructor who expects perfection out of his students. Nevertheless, this art instructor’s weird style of motivation may be the key to Akiko’s art dreams. While this series is meant for teens, I think adults would enjoy this trip down Akiko’s memory lane. Too often, we reach adulthood and forget the dreams and goals we had in our childhood and teenage years. Blank Canvas explores the feelings of invincibility we have as teens while also providing a dose of realism towards reaching goals that seem insurmountable.
Readers of all ages can find some cozy joy with these picks from our graphic novel collection! All titles are available here at Howard County Library System, so request one today and try something new to start this new year!
Claudia J. is an instructor and research specialist and has worked for Howard County Library System for almost five years. She enjoys writing on rainy days and drinking iced coffee on sunny days.
As winter rears its cold head, I’ve found myself returning to manga – Japanese comics – more often. Partly for the comfort it brings this aging nerd, and partly for the way you can read one volume, then pick up another, like eating bunches of caramel popcorn.
But mostly, I return to manga because the stories are always so different. I’d like to recommend two series we have at HCLS that I’ve been reading side by side, one about basketball and one about supernatural cannibals…different, indeed.
Slam Dunk by Takehiko Inoue is a sports manga published between 1990 and 1996, focusing on a high school boys’ basketball team. Hanamichi Sakuragi is a punk, a loser, and desperate for a girlfriend. After fifty rejections of his declarations of love, he finds himself drawn to Haruko Akagi, the one girl who doesn’t think he’s a total dweeb. And she introduces him to basketball, a sport he previously hated (mostly because his most recent crush turned him down to date a basketball player).
So, he joins the team, acts like a total fool, but along the way Sakuragi discovers his talent for the sport, for aggressive play that impresses his teammates. Like other sports manga, he discovers more about himself and his team, the sport, and what it means to grow up. This all occurs in early 90s Japan, at the height of basketball’s popularity across the globe, so there’s a certain nostalgic glow to the story and art.
Speaking of the art, it’s clean, expressive, and veers between comedic scenes and heart-pounding sports action. Inoue’s skill as an artist shows through, but his ability as a storyteller, bringing us along Sakuragi’s journey of becoming a proper adult and baller, is what keeps me reading. Slam Dunk is 31 volumes, so it can be a bit of a time investment, but I’ve been enjoying it thoroughly, both as a sports story and as a nostalgia piece for the 1990s.
On a completely separate note, Tokyo Ghoul by Sui Ishida takes place in a modern Tokyo, which seems fairly ordinary. Ah, except for the ghouls – supernatural creatures who look exactly like humans but for their need to consume human flesh. Ken Kaneki is a college student who loves literature and coffee, until a first date turns into a fight for survival when his crush reveals herself as a ghoul. The night ends in an accident, and in the hospital her ghoul’s organs are transplanted into Kaneki. He becomes a hybrid ghoul, torn between the human and ghoul worlds, trying to fit into both.
The art is grim, dark, and bloody (this is absolutely a read for mature audiences), and as Kaneki falls deeper into the ghoul world, monstrous cruelties emerge from the shadow beneath Tokyo. However, unlike other horror titles in the genre, Tokyo Ghoul has something more – a heart. Sure, ghouls can be horrifying monsters capable of unthinkable violence, but at the same time, Kaneki discovers that they’re not born that way. Indeed, a ghoul is just another kind of person (who eats human flesh), and the story is full of moments where the reader questions, “Who’s the real monster?”
Of course, there are super-cool fights between the ghouls and the anti-ghoul investigators, drawn expertly. But again, Ishida’s writing doesn’t let this series slip into a fight-of-the-week style, like many other action manga series. Kaneki’s transformation is fraught with moments of questioning: what it means to live, what it means to love, and how does anyone survive in a world like this.
I was surprised at the depth of this series, and while it is violent and action-packed, there’s way more to it than that. The original series is 14 volumes, followed by Tokyo Ghoul: RE, a sequel series – I’ve only read the first half, but can’t wait to dive into the second, which should keep me occupied for a bit more of this long, long winter.