"What are the classic comic books?"
If this question was posed to most people, even folks who aren't avid comic book fans, it would be easily answered: stories of Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, etc. Most people familiar with pop culture in any capacity would be able to provide input on this without blinking, such is the integrated place superheroes have in our society and history of the Western world. Superheroes and comic books have been a cultural staple for many years, helping us through wars and now slowly taking over Hollywood and bringing comic book characters to a much broader audience. They have withstood the test of time and continue to bring joy and wonder to new generations, classic characters and ever evolving yet familiar story lines capturing people's imaginations.
But what if we were to change the wording of that question slightly. What if instead of classic comic books, I asked: What are the classic mangas?
It is no crime that the majority of people in Western culture would cock their heads in bewilderment, some not even knowing what "manga" is. But manga – that is, Japanese comic books – is to the Japanese as superheroes are to us, even moreso. As an avid reader of both Western comic books AND manga, I feel that the "classic" manga is oftentimes under appreciated. There is such a massive selection of manga out there that it is easy to overlook older runs, and manga works differently than comic books: Series end, characters fizzle out. There are no ongoing sagas, because everything eventually comes to a close. They are illustrated stories, ranging from romantic to historical to everything in between. And with the sheer numbers of manga that Japan puts out every year, delving into its history can be quite daunting. I even feel like I am always catching up, and I read a LOT of manga.
I define "classic" manga as stories that have stood up to the test of time, staples in Japanese culture that even high school students would have heard of. Such manga are usually re-issued every few years, in a new volume, with enhanced linework, added content, notes from the author, what have you. It's easy to get your hands on classic manga, you just have to know what you're looking for. So what ARE you looking for? Read on for your friendly neighborhood guide… to classic manga.
Akira by Katsuhiro Ootomo
Original Run: 1982 – 1990
Let's begin with a bang, shall we?
Akira is classic and groundbreaking for many reasons. Perhaps one of the most important of these is that it was one of the very first manga to be translated into english in its entirety, long before bookstores had teetering shelves of brightly colored shojou manga everywhere. Interestingly enough, Epic Comics (which was a branch of Marvel) was the publisher to first bring Akira to the states.
This amazing book also paved the way with cyberpunk themes, incredibly graphic violence, and a quality of artwork seldom seen. And it was adapted to one of the most well known full length anime pictures of all time.
If you have somehow missed the boat on Akira for all of this time, please please please go pick it up at your closest bookstore as soon as possible. You're in for themes of social corruption, isolation, power gone awry, post apocalyptic Neo Tokyo, art that will blow you away, gory cyberpunk imagery… and the satisfaction that you are holding in your hands perhaps one of the most influential mangas ever published.
Phoenix by Osamu Tezuka
Original Run: 1967-1988
The greatest tragedy of Phoenix is that it will never be completed. Tezuka dedicated his entire life to creating this expansive body of work, but died before the ending was ever realized… or even hinted at. However, despite the series never being wrapped up, it is still very accessible. Tezuka wrote each volume as its own "episode", so it's fairly easy to pick up any of the various Phoenix books and be sucked into its own storyline.
As the title suggests, Phoenix focuses on death and rebirth, seeking out immortality, represented by the giant red bird the Phoenix. Tezuka gave himself very free rein with the stories, as each takes place in a different time period and does not necessarily link up with prior or post volumes. However, there are reoccurring characters and themes, so I would suggest reading all of the stories as they were intended.
Phoenix paved the way with unique art styles. I remember when I first read Phoenix: Universe I was moved to the point of tears by how incredibly powerful and beautiful the panelling was. The story is about spacefarers, who are forced into separate escape pods. Tezuka expertly translates the isolation and fear that these characters have onto the page with horizontal tiers.
Maison Ikkoku by Rumiko Takahashi
Original Run: 1980 – 1987
I am a great admirer of Rumiko Takahashi, and it was very difficult for me to pick one of her classic works to highlight. She is a great influence of mine – she has the ability to write strong and interesting characters, keep you riveted to the page, and make her stories accessible whilst still fanciful. Takahashi is also the best selling female comic book artist in history; she's won many awards, and she also happens to be the wealthiest manga-ka (manga artist) in Japan. It's good to be Rumiko Takahashi.
The reason I chose Maison Ikkoku over several of Takahashi's other works (including Urusei Yatsura, Ranma 1/2 and Inuyasha) is because I personally feel the characters are some of her best, and it also paved the way for many shojou manga over the years. She branded the smart, funny, slightly perverted love stories that are so popular in manga today, and she did it with class, style, great art, and sprawling, fantastic storylines.
Maison Ikkoku is a 15 volume character drama and romantic comedy that centers around the bizarre antics of the residents of a boarding house in 1980s Tokyo. It is a love story first and foremost, rife with misunderstandings, sexual tension, hilarious dialogue, bittersweet encounters, and finally a happy ending. The characters are all unique and memorable in their own way, and as you read you will find yourself really getting to know them and identify with them.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki
Original Run: 1982-1994
If the name Hayao Miyazaki looks familiar to you, it's because it is. Miyazaki is basically the Walt Disney of Japan: he's created movies like My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke… and the list goes on. His body of film work is most impressive, but Nausicaa holds the distinction for being the only manga he ever made.
Nausicaa has many of Miyazaki's central and reoccurring themes: a strong female protagonist finding a balance between humans and nature, fighting some for a great personal cause… all set in a beautiful backdrop full of strange creatures and mythology. It has veiled social commentary whilst still being an eloquent and beautiful read, and it is personally one of my favorite of Miyazaki's works.
Dragon Ball by Akira Toriyama
Original Run: 1984 – 1995
Oh, Dragon Ball. Perhaps one of the most influential manga of all time, and my favorite ever. You know a manga is good when it has sold over 300 million copies worldwide, inspired video games, toys, several different anime, and even an (admittedly terrible) American live action full length movie.
Dragon Ball is the story of Son Goku, a young, precocious boy who travels the world learning martial arts, getting into trouble, fighting a whole lot of baddies (and sometimes good guys), all in search of the seven Dragon Balls: magical balls that summon a dragon who will grant you a single wish. Once the wish is granted, the Dragon Balls scatter across the world once again until the next person comes along to collect all of them. It's full of some of the most hilarious dialogue I have ever read, characters so memorable that even today I hold them with a fondness in my heart (keep in mind I read Dragon Ball for the first time when I was probably about 11 or 12), and the art is also unique, bright, and fun.
If you've never read Dragon Ball, you need to remedy this yesterday. It basically created the shonen genre (manga for younger boys/readers, full of action) and has a very essential place on this list.
There's far too many classic manga to be encompassed in one article. So stay tuned next week for the conclusion to Classic Manga you Should Read… and in the meantime, get reading!
Molly McIsaac likes unicorns, food with faces on it, staring at things through her various cameras, and high fiving anyone who gets near her. Follow her adventures on twitter.