Despite what most people here might think, not everyone in Japan’s a manga fan. Or at least they’re not fans to the extent that somepeople are fans — it’s a little like the difference between a casual TV watcher and a die-hard Star Trek fan here in the U.S.. Manga (along with anime, and their associated interests) may be big business; but to the average Japanese, otaku have a built-in dorkiness that’s hard for them to shake.
This ostracism isn’t something that isn’t always conveyed in manga or anime itself. It’s fun when it’s done right, though. Genshiken nailed this kind of thing perfectly; for anyone who’s a fan or feels like they’ve been a fan for too long, it was hilarious and dead-on. But there’s been a slew of other stories in the same vein: Cosplay Koromo-chan, for instance, a series of four-panel gag comics about a girl who has managed to turn cosplay into a way of life; or Maniac Road, about three sisters who turn a failed electronics store into a thriving “otaku paradise.”
Pretty Maniacs is in fact a direct follow-up toManiac Road; although it’s not crucial to have read the original series to follow this one. The idea is simple: Shinano, sister of one of the original characters from Road, has stepped in for her brother while he’s off at school. She’s still in school herself, and through a combination of odd circumstances has volunteered to take over the ailing manga club. “Ailing” is the nicest possible word: the clubhouse is in a half-abandoned building that shares space with the (equally moribund) photography club; and there are absolutely no other members. It’s a situation that loosely parallels the opening ofGenshiken — in order to keep the place from being shut down, Shinano has to tap into her love of comics and irrepressible energy (she bursts into TV theme songs at the drop of a hat) to draw in as many recruits as she can.
Shinano does find recruits, although some of them wish they hadn’t been found. One is Yura, haughty and distant, but with a good deal of otaku-dom under her mannered surface, which she does her best to keep out of sight. . . but it isn’t always possible. For one, she builds model tanks — and when Shinano calls her on it, Yura winds up earning the nickname “Caterpillar Girl,” due to her somehow always having at least one model tank tread on her person. She’s also an avid console game player — avid enough to miss sleep over it — and there’s a number of funny moments where the two of them realize their tastes in things are highly incompatible, like when they clash angrily over which Gundam was the best.
Another recruit is Chihaya, a dropout from the far more respectable (but far more repressed) art club, who just wants to draw without being told what looks good by her authoritarian teacher. A good chunk of the first volume deals with Shinano getting close to these two and corralling their talents into creating an original comic; there’s a whole chapter that functions like a mini-primer in how to do this sort of thing yourself — from formatting and printing to binding and stapling the finished product without slicing your fingers off. Getting it into people’s hands is another story, though — that, and dealing with the fallout from having stolen the supplies from Chihaya’s former art teacher.
The last portion of the manga deals with their adventures at the summer comic convention, where hundreds of other folks like them are all hocking fan-produced work. Again, the feel of this sequence parallels similar plotlines in Genshiken, although from the point of view of the creators rather than just the fans themselves — like in Comic Party. There are, however, plenty of fun jabs at the convention experience — like when you accidentally buy an explicit adult-title and don’t realize it, or what it’s like to be stuck in a crowd outside the convention hall while it’s raining, under the cover of plastic garbage bags. The best gag for me was one of the most fleeting — in the background of one panel, two industry reps are talking about their acquisitions and one says “We’ve got Gundress!” Given that I tried to sit through the sheer awfulness that was Gundressand failed, twice, it was all the funnier for that.
Art: Shinsuke Kurahashi takes a pretty straightforward and cheerful approach to the goings-on. There are not a lot of outlandish exaggeration; and when there is, it’s well-placed. The comic’s main emphasis is story and interaction, and not the art itself — although Kurahashi does adopt a deliberately different style when showing bits of Chihaya’s own work, for the sake of contrast.
Translation: The book’s been formatted right-to-left, with sound effects, dialogue and incidental text translated. Whenever possible, translations for FX or incidentals have been placed away from other art — in the upper-left panel of page 86, for instance, they had no choice; but the result isn’t egregiously bad. There’s also the occasional cultural note (like the explanation of Gundress), but for the most part the book assumes you know what otaku means and you're familiar with suffixes like –san and –sempai. (The last few pages are a few words from the creator, where he spills the beans about his art assistants and other hangers-on.)
The Bottom Line: Pretty Maniacs isn’t quite as all-out hilarious and on-target asGenshiken, but if you liked the latter you can probably get a chuckle out of this title. I just hope the concept stays engaging in future volumes, and doesn’t peter out into a grinding wheel.