Panel Patter's 2011 Manga Gift Guide

Hello and welcome!  I hope you had a great Thanksgiving with family and friends!  As I write this, my turkey is busy tempting my taste buds with smells from the downstairs kitchen!

As we transition from full bellies to shopping madness, it's time once again for the Panel Patter Manga Gift Guide, now in its third year.  Started a few years ago on Twitter and now curated by Daniella Orihuela-Gruber of All About Manga, it's now just as much a part of my holiday tradition as torturing Panel Patter writer (and my long-suffering wife) Erica with the Chipmunk Song.

Here's the master link of all the 2011 Manga Gift Guides.
Here's the link for the Panel Patter Guide 2009 and Panel Patter Guide 2010.

As in past years here on the blog, I've tried to target gifts towards fans of particular things, to help people with which volume of right to left reading might be best for their friend or loved one.  After all, a person who likes Time and Again (all three of you) might not care for the Victorian romance of Emma.  I've also been careful not to duplicate anything from past years.  This can make putting the list together tricky, but I think the exercise is worthwhile.

So, without further ado, here's my 2011 Manga Gift Guide.  Happy Shopping!

 For the Stephen King Fan

If you know someone who is into character-driven horror stories where the evil is positively sadistic, the plot is complex, and only a small gathering of Everymen can save the day, then you really need to get them started on 20th Century Boys by Naoki Urasawa.  The thing is, though, while this series is excellent, it's also really, really long, to the point that I'm not even close to the most recent volume yet.  Its author definitely is a comics cousin to Stephen King in that regard, making it perfect for fans of the master of modern horror.  This is also good as a transitional book for those not used to manga, because while it does read right to left, the artwork shows at least some influence from western comic book artists, most notably John Romita, Jr., in my opinion.  You can get 20th Century Boys from Viz, though unfortunately not in a digital format at this time.

 For the Crazy Pirate Fan

If you're a fan of the Pittsburgh baseball team, I recommend alcohol.  Lots and lots of alcohol.  But if you prefer your Pirates to be roaming the seven seas instead of center field, and you enjoy your adventures to be romping, comedic events that spread across hundreds of pages, then One Piece is the book for you.  This Shonen Jump title is lengthy, which might be a problem for some people, and it's not finished, yet, either.  100 volumes is a definite possibility, given that this book sells faster than jelly at a peanut butter sandwich convention.  I know a lot of people that are absolutely in love with this series, however, given its plucky protagonist and cast of misfit who somehow manage to make it through, all while the main character never gives up on his dreams.  I'm not a huge fan, but I've enjoyed it and seen the merits of the series.  My biggest problem is just how much of the series exists.  If you think the person on your swashbuckling list won't be intimidated by the weight of back issues, it's a fun book that's almost certain to be a winner.  You can get One Piece from Viz, in both paper and digital editions. The digitals are cheaper, and don't take up any space!

 For the Adolescent Narrative Fan

I've read a lot of back cover copy in my day, but I think an argument can be made that the late Tokyopop's decision to plaster "She's a hot robot in high school...what's the worst that can happen?" might be the worst copy of all time.  While that might be appropriate for a sequel to Chobits, it's about as far from the inner workings of the excellent Karakuri Odette as possible.  Written by Julietta Suzuki, I am forever grateful that those of us who read in English were able to get all six volumes before Stu Levy took his toys and went home, then keeps showing up asking for a cup of sugar (when all I'd give him is rat poison, which is effectively unfair to rats).

Odette is an extremely brilliant android, who decides she wants to experience life as a real human girl.  This six volume series is the story of her growth as a person, learning who and what she is and where she fits in the world.  She faces the same hopes and dreams of the real people around her, mixed with the problems of being a (nearly) unique being.  It's all handled with skill, care, and excellent artwork by Suzuki.  At times funny, at times heartbreakingly tragic, there's even a bit of danger to spice things up, as not everyone's intentions for Odette are honorable.  This might be my favorite book on the guide this year.  It's only sin is being out of print.  It's definitely worth getting if you can find it.

 For Fans of Stories of Hope

If you know someone for whom the glass is always half-full (or want to change the outlook of a perpetual pessimist), Twin Spica is the way to go.  The story of a girl who's entirely too small to be an astronaut for a revived Japanese space program, she's linked in mysterious ways to the disaster that befell Japan years ago.  Watch as she refuses to let anything stop her.

It's almost impossible to go wrong with someone from Vertical, as their limited resources lead to careful selections in what they license.  I've yet to meet a book from that publisher that wasn't of high quality, even if I personally wasn't big on the story.  Twin Spica is of medium length and won't be too large of an investment for your giftee.  At the time of this writing, it is only available in a paper version.

 For the Short Story Fan

One of the biggest issues with manga is that often the series are insanely long, which might not deter long-time comics readers (although I've oddly hear people who own damn near every issue of Batman say that) but can stop a newbie dead in their tracks.  "What do you mean I have to read 30 plus books to know the story?"  Leave it to Fantagraphics to solve this problem, with their (re)entry into the translated manga field with A Drunken Dream and Other Stories by shojo legend Moto Hagio.  Collecting a series of well-curated works that show off both the range of the creator and the genre itself, this is one of the books I'd recommend to any non-manga fan to introduce them into the genre.  These are classic tales that long-time readers will enjoy as well.  There's always a place for Bleach but it's books like Hagio's that show what Japanese comics are capable of producing.  This one, like all Fanagraphics offerings, is only available in paper form.

 For Fans of the Familiar

I'm not trying to slag on Rumiko Takahashi here, especially since I hosted the Manga Movable Feast on the iconic manga-ka, but it's not like any new ground is being broken in her latest series, Rin-Ne.  If you know a long-time manga fan who maybe fell out of the genre over time, this book, which features the adventures of a slightly clueless and fight-prone boy paired with a disbelieving girl as they go after supernatural foes and chase silly visual jokes should have them thinking fondly of the days when manga was published in America in the left to right format.  It's a very comfortable book and reads rather like some of the DCnU comics:  You know the ways these stories are going to play out, but it's an enjoyable ride watching characters you know (or their echoes) arrive at the final destination.  Contrary to the beliefs of some, that's not necessarily a bad thing.  You can read some of Rin-Ne online, but if you want complete volumes, then you need to get in book form from Viz, Takahashi's long-time American publisher.

 For Fans of Action Stories with a Kick

If I were giving out awards, I think Jormundgand by Keitaro Takahashi might win for "manga Rob was most surprised to enjoy", beating out Raiders by a very narrow margin.  It's the story of Koko, an arms dealer with serious personality quirks and a cast of characters who are as flawed as they are interesting, ranging from a boy who hates guns but has the accuracy of an NRA lifetime member to a lesbian commando with serious survivor's guilt to a field leader who might just be too practical for Koko's own good.  Filled with intrigue, complex plots, and at time pitch-perfect black comedy, this was one of my most surprising finds of the year.  While the level of violence is extreme, it's tempered by the humor and Takahashi's flat exposure of the back door deals that go on across the world every day, no matter how much we try to pretend they don't.  It's a fun romp that is just savvy enough without getting preachy.  Anyone who likes action movies and stories is going to dig this one, as it blends 1980s Stallone flicks with the reality of the internet age and imperfect protagonists.  It's yet another Viz title on the list.

 For the Soft Sci-Fi Fan

It's probably a little silly to place not just one but TWO out of print Tokyopop books on the Gift Guide this year, but it's possible you might be able to find a few stray volumes of Aqua/Aria out there, and part of the appeal of this manga is that you don't have to read it in order.  It's easy enough to pick up what's going on by the main character's narration and be exposed to a world that would have made Ray Bradbury's heart sing, if he deigned to read comics.  (From what I understand, despite allowing multiple comics adaptations of his work, the talented but often wrong-minded pillar of modern sci-fi does not approve of comics as a storytelling device.)  In Aria/Aqua, Mars has been terraformed, but things went a bit too far and now it resembles Venice, Italy, with a long tradition of female gondoliers.  These volumes follow the seasons of the year, as a transplant to Mars learns about the world around her, which is populated with sentient cats who run companies.  It's a gentle ride of discovery and joy, and anyone who likes soft science fiction should find it perfect for them--if they can find it!

 For the Fan of Heartwarming Ghost Stories

I read a lot of stories that feature all kinds of horror in them.  Some are violent and bloody, some are creepy, and others look at the more tragic aspects of being a trapped spirit.  That's the case in Natsume's Book of Friends, which features a book who's inherited a very special tome--it's got the names of trapped spirits within!  The spirits aren't very happy about it, however, and plague his life, making it miserable.  There's only one thing to do--give the names back.  Every volume, Natsume encounters more sad figures who need his help to gain their rest, no matter how bad they've become over time.  Natsume's kindness contrasts with his partner, a violent spirit trapped in the body of a good-luck cat who is just waiting for the chance to steal the book and gain its power.  Natsume's Book of Friends  is available in both paper and virtual forms from Viz, the primary provider of my manga reading habits these days.

 For the Fan of Difficult and Complex Subjects

For publishing such a small portion of the manga available today in English, Fantagraphics makes a big splash here in my gift guide.  The second entry is Wandering Son, which is an ongoing series that's just starting out here in America.  The thing that makes this book compelling to those who want more than traditional conflict or romantic plots is that it involves young people who are learning about their sexuality--namely that one or more of the protagonists may in fact by transgendered.  It could be played for laughs or or shame or any number of wrong-headed directions, but Shimura Takako is as respecful as I've ever seen about this sensitive subject.  I read this book and thought it was excellent, but I was unable to put together a review for it because I had no idea how to give it justice.  Wandering Son shows what the medium of comics can do for topics that are often left unspoken.  In this case, a picture of a boy staring at a dress can actually speak a thousand words.  You can get this in book form only, from Fantagraphics.

That's my gift guide for this year!  I hope it helps you pick a book or two for the manga lover in your life!