When I looked at an early galley draft of Manga: The Complete Guide earlier this year, I wrote “It promises to be just the sort of buying and critical guide that English-language manga readers need now, more than ever.” Now that the book has finally been released, that promise has been more than fulfilled. What we have here is one of the few really indispensible and complete guidebooks to a subject that has become so sprawling and difficult to assess on one’s own that we need all the help we can get.
M:TCG serves two duties. First, it’s a buyer’s guide, akin to the Rolling Stone or Trouser Press record books, where you can look up a series you’re curious about and get a general feel for what it’s about and whether or not you’ll want to blow about $10 a book on it. Since the book itself is $20 list price and covers just about everything of significance released in English translations over quite a span of time, it’s almost certain to prove its worth in the long run, especially if you spend $20 a month or more on manga and are just now getting started building a serious collection.
The bulk of the book, as I wrote in my preview, is all about the manga, and that’s as it should be. Each series is listed alphabetically by English title, with Japanese titles (in both Romanji and kanji), author, publication data, a 100-150 word capsule review, and a star rating. Because the book’s aimed at English-language audiences, the vast majority of what’s profiled and indexed in the book is material in translation, but there is mention here and there of as-yet-untranslated works of note (whether because they deserve a closer look or because they should be avoided entirely). The ratings range from zero (worthless) to four stars (essential) in half-star increments, although mercifully few titles show up at the utter low end of the bell curve. There are still a number of profiles that have “NR” (not rated) listings due to their being included in the book rather late, which was the case in the galley proof version of the book, although I’m hoping when/if the Guide is updated they’ll be given a fix-up. (It would be a crime not to have a book like this updated at least once a year or so.)
The reviews themselves, courtesy of chief editor Jason Thompson, formerly of Viz’s U.S. division, and a host of contributors, are also spot-on. They’ve given praise to the titles that have earned it — Naruto, One Piece and Maison Ikkoku all get lauded — draw attention to lesser-known titles that deserve it, like Vertical’s reprints of Osamu Tezuka’s more adult works or off-beat goodies like Comics Underground Japan, and condemn the stuff that clearly has it coming (like the abominable Eiken, a series so awful it doesn’t even work as cheap thrills). Yaoi and adult titles are broken out into their own review sections, which was a smart decision: what makes a good adult title doesn’t always make for a good mainstream title or vice versa, and so different criteria are applied to each. I should also point out that while the Guide itself is published by Ballantine / Del Rey, the array of titles within are not perceptibly biased towards Del Rey’s own manga offerings — many of the four-star titles are from competing companies like Viz and Dark Horse, so it’s not like Del Rey has used this as a stump for their own work. (Not that they would have had anything to worry about, if you ask me: Del Rey’s manga selection is usually quite good, and even the middling Del Rey titles in the Guide, like two-and-a-half-star-rated Negima!, essentially sell themselves.)
When I did dissent from the book’s assessments of particular titles, it was mostly a matter of clashing taste, and nothing I couldn’t chalk up to me being me. I felt Crying Freeman deserved three stars at most and certainly not four, especially given how fetishistic and lurid it becomes after the first (and best) couple of volumes; I thought Masamune Shirow’s Orion epitomized all his worst tendencies in one place, showing him as a great conceptualist but a disaster as a storyteller. But the vast majority of the time, I was nodding in agreement with what I saw: yes, more people need to know about Yoshihiro Tatsumi (The Push Man, Abandon the Old in Tokyo); yes, Gin Tama is criminally underrated; and yes, anyone who has not checked out Takehiko Inoue’s Vagabond is severely missing out.
The other thing M:TCG does is serve as a guide to the whole concept of manga — what it is, both in its native Japan and in the U.S.; how it’s evolved since the middle of the 20th century; and how it splits into an almost endless number of genres and categories. Each general subdivision of manga — shonen, shojo, seinen, yaoi, horror, magical girls, you name it — is broken out and described in detail, along with references to specific examples, discussions of the genre’s implications (such as how dojinshi can flourish in Japan despite being a blatant violation of copyright the vast majority of the time), and a near-encyclopedic amount of trivia, tidbits, and analysis of how Japanese sensibilities shape the material, both from the creative and commercial sides. You might not agree with some of the assessments (like the assertion that adult male professional readers find international politics as a better subject for escapism than thorny local issues like women’s rights), but they help paint that much more of a picture about the world manga comes from.
Complete, in short, is the best adjective for the book. Anyone who runs an anime club or manga library, for instance, should consider this an absolute must-have, if only for the sake of having it as a quick reference to settle those inconvenient arguments — like what the longest-running manga series in Japan is. The answer’s on page 62: Kochira Katsushika-ku Kamerai Kôen-mae Hashutsujo (say that three times fast) — aka Kochi-Kame, which has been running nonstop for over thirty years and has sold over 135 million copies in 131 collected volumes. And you thought you had a lot of back volumes of Kenshin to catch up on.