With TOKYOPOP’s untimely demise this year, critics lost one of their most reliable sources of shame-worthy manga. Though I won’t miss reading J-Pop Idol, Dragon Sister, Innocent W, or Zone-00 — to name just a few of the D-list titles that TOKYOPOP foisted on fans — I will miss reviewing them, as they helped me develop my voice as a critic, challenging me to expand my litany of complaints beyond “boring,” “cliche,” and “awful.” Few of the titles on this year’s Hall of Shame list inspired the same level of creative vitriol that TOKYOPOP’s worst titles did, but they do share one important trait with Qwaser of Stigmata: no one will confuse them with such recent gems as A Bride’s Story, Stargazing Dog, or A Zoo in Winter.
So without further ado, I present the 2011 Manga Hall of Shame Inductees:
5. Amnesia Labyrinth
Written by Nagaru Tanigawa • Art by Natsumi Kohane • Seven Seas
For a manga that features incest, murder, and at least one character with a split personality, Amnesia Labyrinth is shockingly dull. That dullness can be attributed to two things: the source material and the hero. As writer Nagaru Tanigawa explains in the afterword to volume one, Amnesia Labyrinth was “based on a story that, while it didn’t have enough to become a full-fledged novel, had been kicking around in my head for years” — in short, a half-baked idea. Worse still, Souji, the lead character, is so passive it’s hard to believe that he’s an athletic superstar, academic genius, and a lady killer; if anything, he seems more like a collection of cool traits than an actual person. Teenage boys may find Souji an appealing surrogate, but older readers will find the series’ main draw — the mystery — too underdeveloped to be interesting, and the characterizations too thin to inspire identification with any of the cast members. —Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 2/8/11
4. High School of the Dead
By Daisuke Sato and Shouji Sato • Yen Press
This slick, violent zombie story plays like a poor man’s Dawn of the Dead, substituting sadism and sex for the social commentary of George Romero’s classic horror flick. Popular as it may be, a quick scan of volume one reveals myriad issues, from poorly staged fight scenes to tin-eared dialogue. The biggest problem with Highschool of the Dead, however, is the endless parade of panty shots and costume failures. The Satos work fanservice into as many scenes as possible, taking full advantage of every stairwell, fight, fall, and female death to expose cleavage — and poorly drawn cleavage, at that. (Hint to aspiring manga artists: large breasts do not resemble grossly distended lemons.) And when the scariest thing about a zombie story is the way the female characters’ bosoms are drawn, it’s safe to say that the creators ought to spend a little more time watching 28 Days or I Am Legend, and a little less time watching Naughty Naked Co-Eds. —Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 12/27/10
3. Gandhi: A Manga Biography
By Kazuki Ebine • Penguin Books
This slim volume reduces Gandhi’s life to a string of four-page vignettes that do little to reveal who he was or what he believed; important episodes in every stage of his career are drained of historical nuance, preventing the reader from fully appreciating the complexity of the political situations in South Africa or India. Adding insult to injury is the script: the dialogue abounds in awkward sentences, anachronistic sentiments, and cringe-worthy typos that consistently undercut the story’s serious message. (Makes you wonder: did anyone at Penguin Books actually proofread Gandhi?) More disappointing still is the artwork: it’s plain and lifeless, relying too heavily on computer shortcuts and pre-fab backgrounds to create a genuine sense of place or time. My suggestion: skip the manga and rent Richard Attenborough’s 1982 movie of the same name. —Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 10/6/11
2. The Beautiful Skies of Houhou High
By Arata Aki • DMP
In this unfunny comedy about sexual orientation, a gay teen’s mother enrolls her daughter in an all-boys’ boarding school — mom’s idea of a “cure” for lesbianism. A more skillful storyteller might use the set-up to critique homophobia, or the idea that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice, but Arata Aki takes the easy road, using Kei’s dilemma as a pretext for wacky hijinks. Though the theme of gender exploration is extended to include male cast members — several boys in Kei’s dorm exhibit stereotypically feminine behavior and interests — Aki doesn’t do anything particularly interesting with these supporting characters; their antics provide comic relief, not commentary on the fluidity of gender norms. Lame gags and confusing subplots remind the reader at every turn that Houou High isn’t concerned with real human sexuality, but in wringing cheap laughs out of a gay character’s humiliation. In a word: yuck. —Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 2/28/11
1. Tenjo Tenge
By Oh!Great • VIZ Media
Flipping through the first volume of VIZ’s “Full Contact” edition, it’s easy to see why DC Comics censored the original English print run of Tenjo Tenge. The story abounds in the kind of gratuitous nudity and sexual encounters that make an unadulterated version a tough sell at big chain stores like Wal-Mart and Barnes & Noble. DC Comics’ solution was an inelegant one: they re-wrote the script, drew bras and panties on naked girls, and cut some of the most offensive passages. As an advocate of free speech, I can’t condone the bowdlerization of any text, especially in the interest of a more commercially viable age-rating , but as a woman, it’s hard to celebrate the restoration of a graphic rape scene or images of naked girls throwing themselves at the heroes, especially when the plot is violent and silly. —Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 6/3/11
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So now I turn the floor over to you, readers: what titles made your Worst of 2011 list?
A tip for first-time visitors: you might want to read my Comment Policy before busting out words like “feminazi” in defense of a favorite title. Your comment is much less likely to be deleted if you’re friendly, funny, and logical, as those qualities facilitate dialogue.