Go into any major bookstore and you're bound to find at least a shelf's worth of manga easily enough. Due to the genre's newfound popularity, you might be lucky enough to run into some manga-inspired domestically created works, such as Megatokyo, or the new Transformers comics.
However, the concurrent upsurge of American manga alongside their Japanese counterparts is not a new phenomenon. While the general influence of Japanese culture on our own can be tracked for quite some time, most people agree on the series that truly brought about the inception of Ameri-manga: Ben Dunn's Ninja High School, first published in 1986.
Apparently Antarctic Press, the publishers of Ninja High School, as well as a large number of other comics influenced by manga, has found a wider distribution for their excellent products lately, for I'm finally starting to see their titles appear on the shelves of major bookstores.
All I can say is that it's about time.
Some of these titles, unfortunately, may still be hard to come by. Anticipating this problem, I've decided to help our fine readers out by giving a quick rundown of what's out there, starting with the beginning. While many of the following works are Antarctic Press publications, I've included some other titles worth checking out that can also be seen as Ameri-manga.
Ninja High School
By Ben Dunn
This book contains the series that helped establish the look and feel of Ameri-manga. Set in high school, this blend of action, comedy, science fiction, fantasy, and romance was probably different than every other domestic comic book that shared shelf space with in the 80s. Sort of like Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Ninja High School isn't merely a copycat of the types of comics that Ben Dunn appreciated - it is a unique, valid, and significant new story set within the boundaries of manga storytelling conventions.
In the pages of this series, you'll encounter Jeremy Feeple, a typical average high school guy, though his life is about to take a turn for the romantically awkward. Like most of us guys, Jeremy is no ladykiller. Sure, he's nice and friendly enough, but Jeremy isn't the sort of guy to attract, say, two beautiful girls at the same time.
Thus, you can imagine his surprise when two beautiful girls - Ichi-kun, a Japanese exchange student, and Asrial, an exchange student from, well, a little further away - approach him for marriage. This is unfortunately detrimental to Jeremy's health, for Ichi-kun also happens to be a very dangerous ninja, and Asrial is actually an intergalactic warrior princess. In her true form, Asrial has cute fuzzy ears that belie her potentially violent nature.
Ninja High School remains a great book with which to begin your addiction to American manga. There's action a-plenty, and while this release predates the solidification of Ben Dunn's art style, it's a good hint at his skill to come.
By Fred Perry
It should be illegal to mention the rise of the Ameri-manga genre without first mentioning Gold Digger. Fred Perry's voluptuous character designs help make the covers of these collected editions stand out, but it's the humor and sci-fi slanted action you'll find inside that ensure a proper and healthy addiction to the adventures of the Diggers sisters.
This particular series is a bit more geeky than others, with obvious nods to Indiana Jones and Star Wars, but that's part of what makes it so much fun to read. Also somewhat distracting for some is the writer's slight fixation on good looking characters, from the outrageously buxom Diggers sisters to the impeccably well-built male characters that intrepid readers will encounter along the way.
Not that there's anything unusual about a comic book featuring unusually gorgeous characters, or that I mind their presence in this book, but believe it or not, some people actually like comics where the average cup size for a given female character is smaller than a C.
Weird, but true, it's your fun fact for the day.
While the first few volumes look drastically different from the newest titles in the series, Fred began his comic-writing journey as an already impressive artist. Over the years, he's merely refined his talents to an even finer degree. Notable for his attention to detail (which helps give this series more of a manga flavor than some contemporaries), Fred is by no means an unskilled illustrator.
Humor is balanced equally with the action and sexiness in Gold Digger, and there's plenty of all three on each page of the series. Now I just need to track down the anime version of the series...
By Chynna Clugston-Major
Chynna's darling artwork coupled with a clan of angst-filled teens that say things that are anything but is the perfect formula for a series that's even more international than American comics imitating Japanese manga. Who knew that you could safely throw an Irish punk rock chick into the mix and come out unscathed?
Blue Monday, published by Oni Press, is the High Fidelity of the independent comic book world. References to punk acts old and new will get the rebel in you a kick-ass pair of plaid pants to go with your spiky, anti-establishmentarian mohawk.
While it's easy to pass this off as a comedy, Blue Monday has far more depth than the average Sunday comics. Guys can read it for the humor, but chances are, the drama of the teenage girls that star in this series is what's going to keep the ladies reading with alacrity.
Apparently, alacrity is all the rage, or so I've heard.
I fell into this story quite easily, for despite my software-writing, book-loving, Beatles-appreciating nature, I secretly want to be a punk. Now that the truth is out, I suppose it's time to live my dream!
And that means it's time to move onto the next series.
By Rod Espinosa
We find ourselves back in the AP camp for this title, and slowly but surely, a common theme involving women and their chests is becoming apparent in these series.
For now, we'll overlook that, focusing on the incredibly complex storyline that Rod has established in his series. Set far off in the future, in a time where multitudes of planets interact with each other in a sophisticated universal culture.
As with all large societies, however, this advanced culture has spawned some significantly advanced crime, as well. The primary protagonists, the titular Battle Girlz, are in the employ of Yasigra Sasa Rai Desperado, otherwise known as "Saintly Perfect Goddess," a 9'11" wonder of a woman whose skills match the majesty of her name.
Yes, she's that good.
Everything is a bit exaggerated, including the other characters' names, such as Mech Girl, Mighty Girl, Temptress, Gadgeteer, and Priestess. But then, that's part of the work's charm.
By J. Torres and Takeshi Miyazawa
This particular series features what is possibly the best hybrid of Japanese artwork with an American storyline I've yet encountered. Takeshi Miyazawa's illustrations are striking. Expressive characters, delicate linework, dynamic shading, and boasting incredibly well-balanced panels, this is one of the best looking black and white comics I've read in a long time - from any country. Rather than adopt the gritty realism of other works such as Vagabond or Blade of the Immortal, Miyazawa has crafted a book that looks like a comic book, albeit with uncanny skill.
Even more impressive than the consistently attractive visuals is the rather organic sci-fi story penned by J. Torres. A mix of parody and drama with a touch of teenage angst, the heroes of Sidekicks react believably to impossible situations.
The story revolves around Terry Highland as she tries to get used to her new school, Shuster Academy. Adapting to something different is normally hard enough, but Shuster happens to be special.
In the world of Sidekicks, superheroes abound, and Shuster Academy is the preferred educational institution for kids with special powers. In Terry's case, it's superhuman strength, and it seems as she's going to need every bit of it to survive in her strange new environment.
Spyboy: The M.A.N.G.A. Affair
By Peter David, Pop Mhan, and Norman Lee
Another well-illustrated release, this book comes from the venerable halls of Dark House publishing. As the title suggests, this work is also a bit of a parody of the manga style of visual storytelling, but this particular release comes with a twist.
A twist that I won't reveal.
This is my introduction to Spyboy and Spygirl, as I've never had the pleasure of seeing these characters in action before I found this little gem in my bookstore. The look of the work is very slick, looking less like an independent comic book and more like a professional mainstream release.
I have nothing against comics with less than stellar artwork (see my review of the must-buy print version of RPG World for proof), but this release looks particularly nice.
By Ted Naifeh
Last on this list for today, but certainly not least in sheer originality and entertainment value, we have the quirky Courtney Crumrin series.
I'd say that Naifeh's style is somewhere between Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes and Beetlegeuse, except I worry that I wouldn't be adequately emphasizing the sheer imagination that went into Courtney Crumrin.
There's always at least one weird kid in a given classroom. Maybe you sat in front of him or her. Maybe you sat behind the person.
Maybe you were the weird kid.
No matter our current situation, we can all relate to the feeling that we had as kids that not everything in the world can be explained. Objects get rearranged when no one's around to move them. People turn up missing. In fact, slightly unusual events occur so frequently in our lives, we tend to not notice them at all. It's easier to ignore than to question something, and as humans, being oblivious is one of our greatest talents.
At least, that's the feeling in Courtney Crumrin.
Courtney, though...she's different. She sees the world as it is, not as she wants to see it. Because of her extra perception, she is mocked in school. But then, she also has a keen awareness of the Night Things, which may prove to be more useful than harmful.
Edgar Allan Poe, Tim Burton, Vincent Price, Alfred Hitchcock - Naifeh evokes each of these masters of the morose in his series. And yet, in the end, the book is darkly humorous and poignant in its criticism of society's inability to accept outsiders. Deep stuff for a comic book, but then, we're not all here for Hamtaro.
Not only for Hamtaro, at least. You've just gotta love that Ham-Ham dance.
With that in mind (little hamsters dancing away), I think we've had enough from me this month. So, remember, in your haste to get the greatest thing from Japan, don't go passing up all the great manga-inspired English comics out there. You might be missing out on what could become your favorite series!