The Best Manga You’re Not Reading: Qwan

I have a bad habit of falling in love with commercially doomed series. Satsuma Gishiden was my first great disappointment: Dark Horse published three volumes of this manly-man samurai manga, only to put the series on ice in 2007. Duck Prince was another, with Ai Morinaga’s awesomely weird comedy getting the axe midway through its run, a victim of CPM’s perpetual cash flow problems. But the cancellation that really broke my heart was Qwan, a fantasy-adventure that drew heavily on Chinese history and folklore for its inspiration. Between 2005 and 2007, Tokyopop released four volumes before putting the series on hiatus, leaving Qwan‘s few die-hard fans stranded in the middle of a crucial story arc.

While I’d be the first to admit that reading an unfinished story can be an exercise in frustration, I’m going to recommend Qwan anyway because the four volumes that were published are awesome — Scout’s honor.

The story focuses on Qwan, a child-like figure whose naivete and enthusiasm belie super-human strength and speed. Though Qwan realizes he isn’t human, he’s never questioned his origins or abilities — that is, until he meets Shaga, a courtesan who urges him to seek the Essential Arts of Peace, a sutra that will reveal where Qwan came from and why he was sent to live among humans. He’s not the only one who wants the sutra, however; various political factions vie for the scrolls, hoping to unlock the scrolls’ power and hasten the Han Dynasty’s demise.

Questing boys and magical scrolls are de rigeur in fantasy-adventure stories, but Qwan distinguishes itself in two crucial areas. The first is well-rounded characters. Qwan isn’t a classic Shonen Jump hero, kind-hearted and dedicated to self-improvement, but a more ambiguous figure; he’s guileless and self-centered in the manner of a nine- or ten-year-old, unable to feel genuine sympathy for others. Early in volume one, for example, Qwan encounters a mysterious girl traveling in the company of a demon. Daki proves more a formidable opponent than Qwan anticipates, successfully countering his attack with powerful insect magic. Though it’s clear to the reader that Daki, like Qwan, is a supernatural being, caught between the human and demon worlds, Qwan himself never sees the parallels between their situations, repeatedly attacking Daki until he resigns himself to the futility of his efforts.

The second distinguishing feature of Qwan is Aki Shimizu’s gorgeous artwork, which draws on anime, guo hua (classical Chinese painting), and wuxia films for its aesthetic. Though Shimizu usually blends these different styles into a seamless whole, she occasionally makes explicit, almost self-conscious quotations of her influences. In this panel, which appears in the very first chapter, she gracefully echoes the undulating lines and shapes of Chinese landscape paintings, even adding a delicately stylized pine tree in the foreground:

Her fight scenes, too, are steeped in Chinese influences. Using dramatic angles, she makes her characters look as weightless as the wire-fu acrobats in Curse of the Golden Flower and House of Flying Daggers; her fight scenes are balletic, beautifully choreographed sequences of tumbling bodies and arcing swords. In this sequence, for example, Qwan goes mano-a-mano with a tiger demon, eventually gaining the upper hand by vaulting onto the monster’s back:

Qwan then consumes the demon at the end of their protracted battle, the demon’s body dissolving into an inky swirl:

Oh, and Shimizu draws some pretty nifty monsters, too. This one suggests a Maltese-water buffalo hybrid with prehensile toes:

So why wasn’t Qwan a bigger hit? I think narrative complexity was a factor. Though the story is a rich tapestry of political history and myth, Shimizu refuses to spoon feed information to the reader; we’re just as confused and disoriented as Qwan himself is. That kind of reading experience can be quite rewarding, but the absence of an omniscient narrator demands more of the audience, forcing us to pore over the text and make connections on our own. Shimizu’s artwork and characterizations are up to the task, but impatient readers will easily miss crucial details in their haste to get to the fight scenes.

I also think timing was a factor in Qwan’s cancellation, as Qwan‘s fourth volume appeared in 2007 at the height of the manga boom. If you remember that heady period, publishers were releasing more than 1,200 new volumes of manga per year. Titles that didn’t have an obvious hook — say, a popular anime adaptation or a cast of hot male vampires — faced an uphill battle, with bookstores unwilling to stock series whose first or second volumes sold poorly. With little support from the publisher, and few fans blogging about it, Qwan was all but consigned to the remainder bin.

I’m under no illusion that my paean to Qwan will save it from licensing purgatory; for every Yotsuba&!, there are two Tactics, manga that didn’t gain much traction even after a well-publicized rescue. But Qwan is so good that I can’t help but wish that someone will complete the series. It’s a manga for people who love great stories and vivid characters, who care more about the quality of the storytelling than the coolness of the concepts and costumes.


33 thoughts on “The Best Manga You’re Not Reading: Qwan”

  1. Angel says:

    I will see if I can find it. I happen to be leery of manga series (falling in love with a new one) because of fear they will be put on ice, cancelled, what have you. I am just starting Satsuma Gishiden, and I was disappointed to learn Dark Horse iced it. And yet, I keep discovering new things to read. This one, in spite of the loss of later volumes, I will probably read anyhow. Oh well.

    Best, and keep on blogging.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      I share your frustration! The most recent round of layoffs at Tokyopop makes me fearful that I won’t see the end of great series like Suppli, Your & My Secret, or The Secret Notes of Lady Kanoko. The only thing I can do is buy what’s available, and support companies that have a better track record of finishing what they started.

  2. Noura says:

    I will look into Qwan. Duck Prince is something I would have loved to read as I am a fan of Ai Morinaga. I love her The Heavenly Hockey Club but unfortunately, Del Rey didn’t publish past volume 8 which is a shame. Her Your & My Secret is awesome as well. Honestly, Morinaga-sensei’s works make me really, really laugh which makes me feel so good as there are very few comedies that make me laugh this hard. Hopefully Kodansha will pick up where Del Rey left off. I’m glad that TOKYOPOP is still publishing Your & My Secret and I hope they continue doing so.

    Sorry If this turned out to be a runt about Ai Morinaga. Oh, another series I’m so disappointed that it didn’t get completely published is Banri Hidaka’s I HATE YOU more than anyone! which was published by the defunct CMX. It is one of my favorites and I think it is one of Hidaka-sensei’s bests.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      You never have to apologize for raving about the awesomeness of Ai Morinaga. Your & My Secret is one of my favorite shojo manga of all time — it’s weird, rude, and hilarious, and surprisingly thoughtful, too. I only read a few volumes of My Heavenly Hockey Club, but maybe it’s time to revisit the series and read what Del Rey did release. I know a lot of people who adored that series.

    2. LG says:

      Ohh, My Heavenly Hockey Club, that’s why I recognized the name Ai Morinaga! I liked that one well enough, but after a while it just seemed like the same thing over and over. I got as far as volume 5 and then quit. I should probably at least try something else by her.

      1. Noura says:

        Ai Morinaga is awesome! You should definitely check out Your & My Secret which is published by TOKYOPOP. It is hilarious, cute and with some touch of romance mixed in. I personally loved My Heavenly Hockey Club. I wish more volumes get published. This and Your & My Secret are my favorite by Morinaga-sensei.

        1. LG says:

          Just read the review – OMG, it sounds like so much fun! I’ll have to look this one up after work and see about getting the first couple volumes. Even if I get bored with it the way I did with My Heavenly Hockey Club, I should be able to get at least a few volumes worth of entertainment out of this. Thanks for the recommendation!

    3. lys says:

      Ooh Noura, nice to meet another Hidaka-fan!! I would agree that IHYMTA is her best work (that I’ve read so far)—it definitely has my favourite characters, and her sense of humour is the best. I love the series to bits! Anyway, that’s a bit off-topic…

      To LG, I’ll second or third or whatever the rec for Your & My Secret! I’ve enjoyed Hockey Club and (what’s available of) Duck Prince too, but I consider Y&MS the best of the three. I think there’s a little more progression in plot than what I found in Hockey Club, so hopefully it won’t bore you!

      Finally, this post has me sufficiently intrigued about Qwan that I’m thinking I’ll have to pick it up soon. I don’t think I’d actually heard of the series until now (like a number of other series Tokyopop was putting out around the same time) so thanks for bringing it to my attention, Kate!

      1. Noura says:

        Not to mention Banri Hidaka’s gorgeous art style! I also love her V.B.Rose but I HATE YOU more than anyone! is my favorite and I like the characters in it much more than the ones in V.B.Rose. I hope some other company pick it up someday. I have 9 volumes out of 13, so four more volumes to go.

        I also haven’t heard of Qwan before reading about it here.

        1. lys says:

          Yes, I love her art!! Her fashion sense really comes out in VBR, which I love seeing. And I get a thrill every time Maki or Kazuha make special guest appearances. I had to get the last four IHYMTA volumes in Japanese, because I couldn’t bear not to know the ending, but I’m still really hoping for a publisher to pick it up (maybe Tokyopop if VBR’s doing well for them… but with the recent news that may be too much to hope for). Did you know of the recent one-volume special focused on Honjo and Senko? And her newest series is a sequel with the next generation of Sugimoto kids as characters… 😀 *fully in fangirl mode*

          1. Noura says:

            Yes, I know about her latest work that is currently being serialized in Hana to Yume. I hope some company here would license it and I am pretty sure it will happen eventually.

            I wanted to get the Japanese tankoubons for Sekai de Ichiban Daikirai! but unfortunately, most of the volumes are Out Of Print. The company didn’t even reprint them. Well, let’s just hope some other company here picks it up and re-release it.

            Have you read Hidaka’s Tears of a Lamb? It was published by CMX as well and they did manage to publish it all. I actually didn’t like this one much but I read it from beginning to end and I own all the volumes.

            1. lys says:

              Yeah, the SekaIchi books were a little hard to find. I did a group order with some friends to get one or two of them used from Amazon JP (so we split the super-expensive shipping); I’ve heard that Acclimate Solution is also a good source for used/out of print books though…

              I have Tears of a Lamb too. I like the other two series best, but I still enjoyed Tears too. Hidaka has a knack for interesting characters. I love the wandering stories of IHY/VBR, but I can see how the more deliberate plot of Tears may be preferable to some readers. It’s nice that one of her series has been finished here (so far)!!

      2. Katherine Dacey says:

        You’re very welcome!

        BTW, since you’re a big Banri Hidaka fan, you might want to check out Sean Gaffney’s blog, A Case Suitable for Treatment. He’s also a big champion of I Hate You More Than Anyone, and has reviewed all nine volumes, plus several volumes of V.B. Rose and Tears of a Lamb. Here’s the link (assuming you’re not already reading his stuff, of course!):

        1. lys says:

          Haha, I do indeed read Sean’s blog 😀 His taste in shoujo manga corresponds pretty well to my own! And sorry for going off on a tangent in the comments here ^^; I promise I’ll check out Qwan to make up for it! (and because I really am curious.)

  3. Mely says:

    I’m so glad you posted on Qwan! It’s long been one of my obscure favorites, too. I only ever picked it up because Telophase recommended it.

    I tried looking at Shimizu’s other series, but they didn’t seem to have the same peculiar charm — Suikoden III was a game adaptation and Bloodsucker was so gory I ended up never opening up the volume I bought.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      Telophase’s column was one of the best things about the old Tokyopop website! I was still pretty new to manga back then, and found her essays about shojo, Tezuka, and various series a great introduction to the medium. I was pleased to see her turn up recently at The Hooded Utilitarian as a columnist. (Here’s a permalink to her essays:

      As for Shimizu’s other work, I have to agree: Bloodsucker was pretty awful (looked great, but was dull and predictable, not to mention kind of misogynistic) and Suikoden III was just OK, nothing special.

      1. Anna Frohling says:

        what?? I love the Suikoden III manga. I dunno, maybe its just the ducks.

        1. themooninautumn says:

          I thought it was a better than average video game adaptation. I just love her art, too, so I’m sure that biased me in its favor. 🙂

  4. Jade Harris says:

    Qwan is a favourite of mine too. Having followed it from its release, I can say that the release schedule was a problem too: The first two volumes were pretty close together, the third, not too long after, but I didn’t even know there was a fourth volume out. It must have released a while after the third.

    The lack of exposition, combined with too much plot and motivation jumpiness, really mangles Suikoden III. Qwan works pretty well by comparison. I think Shimizu’s big problem is in wanting to do cold episodic stories but shoehorning them into a continuous narrative.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      I think the series came out slowly in Japan, so Tokyopop caught up with the Japanese edition a couple of times. More even scheduling would have helped a lot, though. With so many new titles being released, it’s really easy to forget about a series that’s been on a one- or two-year hiatus.

  5. Angela says:

    Everything about that story sounds awesome – gosh, it’s a fantasy manga, and I don’t know enough of those that are good – and the cover art was instantly appealing before I even saw that this was a recommendation. But I cannot, cannot do that to myself. Incomplete series just make me sad, and I wind up selling them off anyway since having them sit on the shelf is too depressing.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      I feel your pain. On the other hand, I have so many great, incomplete series on my shelves that I try to maintain a positive outlook: surely three volumes of Club 9 or five of Suppli is better than none.

  6. N says:

    In my dream world, I run a manga company, and we publish this.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      … and I would work for that company!

  7. Melinda Beasi says:

    Oh, man… now I really want to read this. *sigh* The artwork has a sort of Jump meets E. H. Shepard feel to it. I’m in love already!

  8. themooninautumn says:

    “I have a bad habit of falling in love with commercially doomed series.”

    Sing it, sister. 🙂 Sometimes I’m paranoid enough to think that I shouldn’t read new series that look good because my liking them will doom them. Every so often, I vow that I will not start another series that is not completed in English because the trauma of having yet another thing you love die feels like it would just be too much. (Oh, the melodrama.) That vow usually doesn’t last more than a few months . . .

    I loved Qwan as it was coming out. It was just so weird and creepy and intriguing. I love what you said about Qwan as a protagonist, and I agree completely with your art comments. Spread the love for Qwan and hope for the best!

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      It was just so weird and creepy and intriguing.

      Couldn’t have said it better myself! It gets under your skin and stays with you a very, very long time.

  9. mari says:

    english volumes go to four, french volumes go to seven. wtf?

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