Are you an adult reader new to manga? Or a librarian who’s looking to add more graphic novels to your adult collection? Then this list is for you! The VIZ Signature imprint is one of the best resources for adults who read — or are curious about — manga. All of the Signature titles originally appeared in Japanese magazines that cater to grown-up tastes. As a result, the Signature line has broader appeal than many of VIZ’s other imprints, offering something for manga lovers who have “aged out” of Naruto as well as general interest readers who are more likely to discover a graphic novel through The New York Times than The Comics Journal.
Below, I’ve compiled a list of seven titles that best represent the VIZ Signature catalog. In choosing manga for this list, I was less concerned about identifying the “best” titles and more concerned with steering readers towards stories that resonate with their taste in movies, television, and comics. I’ve also focused on more recent series, as some of the line’s older titles — Monster, Sexy Voice and Robo, Phoenix — are out of print. Manga fans are strongly encouraged to add their recommendations in the comments section!
All My Darling Daughters
By Fumi Yoshinaga • 1 volume
The five vignettes in All My Darling Daughters depict women negotiating difficult personal relationships: a daughter confronts her mother about mom’s new, much younger husband; a college student seduces her professor, only to dump him when he tries to court her properly; a beautiful young woman contemplates an arranged marriage. Like all of Yoshinaga’s work, the characters in All My Darling Daughters love to talk. That chattiness isn’t always an asset to Yoshinaga’s storytelling, but here the dialogue is perfectly calibrated to reveal just how complex and ambivalent these relationships really are. Yoshinaga’s artwork is understated but effective, as she uses small details — how a character stands or carries her shoulders — to offer a more complete and nuanced portrait of each woman. (One of my picks for Best New Manga of 2010.)
Recommended for: Readers who liked Drinking at the Movies, Dykes to Watch Out For, Make Me a Woman, and other graphic novels exploring the everyday lives of women; readers who are reluctant to commit to a multi-volume series.
By Tsutomu Nihei • 6 volumes
In this sci-fi/horror hybrid, an outbreak of a mysterious virus turns all but one resident of an island colony into zombies. Zoichi Kanoe, a corporate bounty hunter, is sent to retrieve that survivor, only to discover that she’s being guarded by a talking, gun-toting bear. Tsutomu Nihei has the artistic chops to pull off some outlandish stuff, including a rooftop chase scene that borrows a few pages from Bullitt and a spooky Martian prologue that would do John Carpenter proud. Nihei also has the good sense to exercise restraint — if one can describe an apocalyptic zombie scenario with pistol-packing grizzlies as “restrained” — revealing key bits of information only as the characters learn them. The result is a lean, fast-paced shoot-em-up that has just enough thought behind it to make it plausible but not so much that it seems ham-fistedly allegorical. (Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 2/14/10.)
Recommended for: Readers who like science fiction with elements of horror (e.g. Alien, John Carpenter’s The Thing); readers who like zombie fiction, comics, and movies.
Detroit Metal City
By Kiminori Wakasuhi • 10 volumes
Satirizing death metal is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel: how hard can it be to parody a style associated with bands named Cannibal Corpse or Necrophagia? Poking fun at death metal while respecting the sincerity of its followers, however, is a much more difficult trick to pull off, yet Kiminori Wakasugi does just that in Detroit Metal City, ridiculing the music — the violent lyrics, the crudely sexual theatrics — while recognizing the depth of DMC fans’ commitment to the metal lifestyle. Though the musical parodies are hilarious, the series’ funniest moments arise from classic fish-out-of-water situations: Negishi driving a tractor on his parent’s farm while dressed as alter ego Lord Krauser (complete with makeup, fright wig, and platform boots), Negishi bringing a fruit basket to a hospitalized DMC fan while dressed as Krauser… you get the idea. The series begins to run out of gas around volume six, but has the decency not to overstay its welcome. (Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 5/28/09.)
Recommended for: Readers who love musical parodies (e.g. This Is Spinal Tap, South Park, Flight of the Conchords); readers who have fond memories of attending KISS or GWAR concerts back in the day.
House of Five Leaves
By Natsume Ono • 8 volumes
Timid ronin Akitsu Masanosuke can’t hold a steady job, despite his formidable swordsmanship. When a businessman approaches him with work, Masanosuke readily accepts, not realizing that his new employer, Yaichi, runs a crime syndicate that specializes in kidnapping. Masanosuke’s unwitting participation in a blackmailing scheme prevents him from severing his ties to Yaichi; Masanosuke must then decide if he will join the House of Five Leaves or bide his time until he can escape. Though Toshiro Mifune and Hiroyuki Sanada have made entire careers out of playing characters like Masanosuke, Natsume Ono makes a persuasive case that you don’t need a flesh-and-blood actor to tell this kind of story with heartbreaking intensity; she can do the slow-burn on the printed page with the same skill as Masaki Kobayashi (Hara Kiri, Samurai Rebellion) and Yoji Yamada (The Twilight Samurai) did on the big screen. (Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 8/20/10.)
Recommended for: Kurosawa junkies; readers who like costume dramas; readers with an interest in Japanese history.
Oishinbo a la Carte
Story by Tetsy Kariya, Art by Hanasaki Akira • 7 volumes
Equal parts Iron Wok Jan, Mostly Martha, and The Manga Cookbook, this educational, entertaining series explores Japanese cuisine at its most refined — sake, seabream sashimi — and its most basic — rice, pub food. The stories fall into two categories: stories celebrating the important role of food in creating community, and stories celebrating the culinary expertise of its principal characters, newspaperman Yamaoka Shiro and his curmudgeonly father Kaibara Yuzan. (Fun fact: Yuzan is such a food snob that he drove Yamaoka’s mother to an early grave, causing an irreparable break between father and son.) Though the competition between Yamaoka and Yuzan yields some elegant, mouth-watering dishes, Oishinbo is at its best when it focuses on everyday food in everyday settings, shedding light on how the Japanese prepare everything from bean sprouts to ramen. Warning: never read on an empty stomach! (Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 6/24/09.)
Recommended for: Foodies, gourmets, and other people who like to watch the Food Network (or have daydreamed about becoming a restaurant critic); readers who enjoy The Drops of God.
By Takehiko Inoue • 15 volumes (ongoing)
In lesser hands, REAL might have been an Afterschool Special in manga form, an earnest, uplifting story about disabled teens who find a new sense of purpose on the basketball court. Takehiko Inoue, however, steers clear of easy sentiment; his characters are tough, competitive, and profane, occasionally self-pitying, and fiercely determined to create a space for themselves that’s theirs—and theirs alone. Though the court scenes are brief (at least by shonen sports manga standards, where matches can take several volumes to unfold), Inoue captures the speed and energy of his athletes with consummate skill. A funny, honest, and sometimes rueful series that works equally well for teens and adults. (My choice for Best New Manga of 2008 at PopCultureShock; reviewed at The Manga Critic on 5/3/09.)
Recommended for: Basketball enthusiasts; readers who enjoy sports stories with a human interest angle.
20th Century Boys
By Naoki Urasawa • 24 vols.
Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys tells a twisty, layered story about ordinary people saving the world from annihilation. Other auteurs have explore similar turf — Tim Kring’s Heroes comes to mind — but Urasawa manages to sustain the reader’s interest without succumbing to cliche or unduly testing our patience. The key to Urasawa’s success is strong script with vivid characters and a clear sense of purpose, reassuring the reader that all the plot strands are just that: strands, not loose threads. Crisp, detailed artwork helps sell the more ludicrous aspects of the story, and distinguish the sprawling cast from one another. (Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 1/9/10.)
Recommended for: Conspiracy theory buffs; readers who enjoy television programs that blend elements of science fiction, suspense, and paranoia (e.g. Alcatraz, Heroes, Lost).