Rachel's Picks of Best and Worst Manga of 2021

Last week I was on a panel hosted by the amazing Deb Aoki to discuss the best and worst manga of 2021. You can view that panel here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IikaGHY-hww. Each panelist presented one pick from the following categories:

·        Best new manga for kids/teens: this is for any manga that was released in North America between July 2020 and July 2021 and is appropriate for readers up to age 16

·        Best continuing manga for kids/teens: a series appropriate for readers up to age 16 that released at least one volume (digitally or in print) in the qualifying period

·        Best new manga for grownups: a title appropriate for readers over 16 years old that released one or more volumes between July 2020 and July 2021

·        Best continuing manga for grownups: a title for older readers that released one or more volumes in the qualifying period

·        Most anticipated: a title that has been announced and licensed for English language release after July 2021

·        Most wanted: a title that hasn’t been released in English and also hasn’t been announced. It could also be a title that was published in English but is now out of print. This is the one category that I didn’t have a pick for.

·        Worst manga: either a new or continuing manga that has had at least one volume released between July 2020 and July 2021

·       Underrated gem: a title that, in your opinion, not enough people know about. It should be a current release or a title that isn’t hard to find. I choose a title that is currently out of print but which can be purchased digitally, so hopefully I followed the spirit of the guidelines.

We were asked to submit multiple picks for each category in case there was overlap, which was the case with Heaven’s Design Team being picked by three people, including myself! What this means is that in this list I can add some of my number two picks that I didn’t get to discuss on the panel. This list represents my own opinion and while I have read a lot of manga this past year, I most certainly did not read every series. So, if your favorite isn’t on here, it’s very likely that I didn’t get a chance to read it.

Best New Manga—Kids/Teens

1    Cells at Work! Baby written and illustrated by Yasuhiro Fukuda, published by Kodansha


The body in this case is a baby who is about to be born. All of the baby’s cells are depicted as toddlers who don’t fully understand their respective jobs. Often instead of doing their jobs, the cells prefer playing with blocks or running around. The main red blood cell is a pig-tailed girl who has a lot of curiosity but gets lost easily. Her friend, F-niichan is a red blood cell bearing hemoglobin-F. He encourages her to deliver oxygen without getting lost or distracted. As the series progresses, we see the cells get braver, more independent, and better at their respective jobs.

The book is listed as 16+ on Kodansha’s website, but I think it would be appropriate for middle-grade readers. There’s no talk of sex or conception, no nudity, and the violence is pretty tame. By giving the different cells distinct personalities, it makes it easier for readers to differentiate between white blood cells, red blood cells, etc. And there are also helpful tips throughout the book for expectant parents and caregivers. A preteen who’s about to become a big sibling would likely get a lot out of this book.

I did a longer review of Cells at Work! Baby Volume 1 here http://www.panelpatter.com/2021/03/cells-at-work-baby-volume-1.html

Best New Manga—Grown-Ups

1. What the Font?! A Manga Guide to Western Typeface by Kuniichi Ashiya, published by Seven Seas


I learned about this manga from the Mangasplaining podcast (https://www.mangasplaining.com/). If you aren’t that familiar with manga or are looking for new series, you should check out Mangasplaining which is hosted by Deb Aoki, David Brothers, Christopher Butcher, and Chip Zdarsky.

In What the Font?! Marusu is a salesperson for a small company who has to take on the job of designing logos after the employee responsible for that task vanishes. Marusu is taken to a school where all of the typefaces are individual people that she can talk to and learn about. Most of the one-volume series is made up of four-panel vertical strips.

Readers learn about when, where, and why each typeface was designed, examples of where it is used, and how it is classified within its respective group of typefaces. As a freelance copyeditor, I spend a lot of my day using word processors. One thing that I learned when I became a copyeditor is that other editors have strong opinions about typefaces. Most of us dislike overly ornate typefaces because they are hard to proofread. And Comic Sans doesn’t get a lot of love either, even though it is a wonderful font for those with dyslexia as each letter is distinct and not just a flipped version of another letter (for example, b and d in most typefaces are mirror versions of each other).

If like me you enjoy explainer manga, want to learn why companies choose the typefaces that they use for logos, and you have opinions about typefaces, you will most likely enjoy What the Font?!

2. Heaven’s Design Team by Hebi-Zou, Tsuta Tzuki, Tarako, published by Kodansha


My second pick for best new manga for adults is Heaven’s Design Team. I love explainer manga like Cells at Work, so when fellow Panel Patter contributor Kelli recommended this series to me, I knew I had to try it (thanks, Kelli!). The premise is that God has created the heavens, the earth, the land, the ocean, etc. but hasn’t yet gotten around to the animals. Instead of creating them all himself, he outsources the work to a group of overworked designers. Like all marketing clients, his requests are very vague and the designers often aren’t given a starting point. So, a lot of their prototypes are rejected for being impractical, dangerous, or overly complicated.

There are scenes in this manga that are absolutely hysterical. Saturn, an older gentleman who designed the horse, is obsessed in one volume with creating a unicorn. The problem is that a horn that size would require a lot of calcium, and a horse’s digestive system isn’t great at absorbing nutrients (unlike cows). Either a horn would weaken the rest of the bones in the unicorn or the designers would need to reduce energy usage elsewhere in the unicorn’s body, such as in the brain, in order to be able to afford that horn. The resulting prototypes show why unicorns don’t exist and also explain how animals like cows and deer can have horns or antlers. I also learned that giraffes in zoos sometimes eat pigeons when they aren’t getting enough protein in their diets. That must be a surprise to visitors, but even more surprising to the other pigeons.

Another thing that I really like about the series is that it features Venus, a nonbinary individual who uses they/them pronouns. I’m pretty sure that this is the first manga where I’ve seen a nonbinary character.

If you love animals, watch Animal Planet documentaries, and like knowing weird facts to bring up at parties, you’ll want to grab yourself a copy of Heaven’s Design Team.


Best Continuing Manga—Kids/Teens

1.     One-Punch Man ONE and Yusuke Murata, published by Viz

I got into the manga through the anime series of the same name. This is a series that is big on long, multi-volume fights. But instead of feeling like the plot is being dragged out, ONE and Murata use the fights to build both the world and the characters. I especially love all the different heroes and monsters, many of which have unique powers and abilities.

Saitama isn’t like the hero in most fighting manga series. He isn’t trying to avenge the deaths of family members or loved ones, he wasn’t a child experimented on by shadowy governmental organizations, nor does he have a code of honor. Instead, he cares more about making the sale at the grocery store than listening to the villain’s monologue. And he charges his disciple rent even though the apartment building the two live in has been abandoned (we should probably be glad that Saitama has no desire to become a landlord).

There are pages in the series that are so technically and wonderfully rendered, like a multipage spread around chapter 20 that reminded me of the short documentary film Powers of Ten. That film started out showing a couple having a picnic and then zoomed out at a rate of one power of ten per ten seconds. In One-Punch Man, we zoom out from Saitama’s apartment building to his neighborhood, to City Z where he lives, to a plane streaking across the sky, to a satellite, to high above the planet, and then finally to a massive meteor. The sequence runs for over 30, mostly wordless pages, and it truly shows the scale of the impending disaster.

I read over 140 chapters in little more than a month, demonstrating how engrossing the series is. There were many nights that I stayed up too late, telling myself “just one more chapter...” If you’re looking for a fun escape, I’d highly recommend One-Punch Man

2. Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun by Aidalro (Yen Press)

My second pick for best continuing manga series for kids/teens is Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun. Full disclosure, I’ve proofread this series for Yen Press since volume 6, but I love it so much that I’m still going to recommend it. 

The premise is that a high school girl named Nene has a massive crush on a classmate, but she is shy and the guy doesn’t notice her. When she hears a rumor that there’s a ghost inside one of the stalls in the girls’ bathroom who grants wishes for a price, she goes to seek out the ghost. She’s surprised that the ghost turns out to be a boy named Hanako. Hanako tries to dissuade her from making a wish because the cost will be high. But she persists. This is the start of a series of wacky, somewhat scary, often funny string of adventures on the school grounds and in another dimension.

Hanako is just one of the school’s Seven Mysteries, a group of supernatural beings who inhabit the school. What I like about this series is that it’s hard to pin down if Hanako is good and what exactly his motivations are. Nene, while perhaps not breaking the mold of a female character who discovers herself in a supernatural, magical world, is still very likeable. She also has agency; as the series goes on, she grows braver and she demonstrates emotional intelligence. Nene constantly worries about her ankles that are a bit thicker than some of the other female students’. And she is constantly teased about them, something that many readers will be able to identify with. There are a lot of cute elements in the manga, and the students are drawn in a way that makes them look their age and doesn’t oversexualize them. One of the cutest elements is the Mokke, rabbit-like supernaturals who adore candy. They like to cause mischief, but they also are very willing to threaten violence, but somehow a rabbit-like creature holding a knife is still quite adorable.

This is a lightly scary series, comparable to something like R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps. And while there is some blood, I think it would be a compelling read for preteens and teens. Be aware that there are some mentions of suicide, so this series may not be right for everyone.

Best Continuing Manga—Grown-Ups

1.     Cells at Work! Code Black by Shigemitsu Harada and Issey Hatsuyoshiya, published by Kodansha


The original Cells at Work! series takes place in a healthy human body that seems to have some bad luck and/or is clumsy. That body falls and gets a scrape, eats some bad fish, gets heat stroke, etc. but there are enough red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, and other cells—all in good shape—that can deal with most of these issues.

In Cells at Work! Code Black, the body is in rough shape. Cholesterol lines most of the arteries, making it hard for red blood cells to deliver oxygen. Constant infections have whittled down the number of immune cells. If the body from the main series could be compared to a busy grocery store, then the body in Code Black is that of a K-Mart that hasn’t had any updates since the ’90s, only gets deliveries of booze and energy drinks, and which keeps getting trashed by roving gangs of raccoons.

I do need to mention that the white blood cells are all very busty female characters whose uniforms show off quite a bit of cleavage. I was initially put off by this because almost all the other characters in Cells at Work! and Cells at Work! Code Black wear uniforms that are practical (however, all WBCs wear all-white outfits that often end up covered in the blood of bacteria and viruses, so maybe I shouldn’t complain too much). Seeing the large-chested WBCs going into battle to fight viruses and bacteria without a bra (preferably a sports bra) on seems like sheer folly to me. However, I now realize that it’s very likely that this was an intentional choice made by the creators to appeal to young male readers, so that they will be more likely to pick up a copy. If these readers do pick up a copy, they will learn about why smoking, overdrinking, consuming excessive amounts of caffeine, not getting enough sleep, not exercising, having unprotected sex, and other habits can be seriously harmful.

I spent a number of years working in retail, including working at Wal-Mart when I was in high school and at Staples as an adult, and there were moments in the manga that so perfectly evoked how frustrating it was to work in an understaffed store while dealing with unhappy customers, disgruntled coworkers, and managers that wanted us to push the upsells. Reading this series has really made me look at how I treat my body and made me more eager to exercise and drink water.

Underrated Gem

Kekkaishi by Yellow Tanabe, published by Viz

Just a note to explain that I haven’t yet finished this series, which started publication North America in 2005. So far, I’ve read 13 of the 35 volumes.

The premise is that a teenaged boy, Yoshimori, and his next-door neighbor, Tokine, a young woman two years older than Yoshimori, are the current generation of kekkai users. Kekkai users erect magical barriers to capture and destroy spirits. For the main characters, most of the spirits are drawn to the energy of the land where their high school is. So, when they’re not in class during the day, they have to return to the school grounds at night to guard the site. Yoshimori, in particular, suffers from not getting enough sleep. Luckily, he has plenty of coffee-flavored milk to keep his energy up.

I think the concept and depiction of kekkai is very cool and it’s neat to see different characters use it in all sorts of ways and not just for fighting. Yoshimori is a middle child, something that you don’t see in a lot of media. He is also an avid amateur baker and he often daydreams about cakes and pies that he wants to make. I’m all for anything that lets boys know that cooking, baking, and crafting are fun. Tokine isn’t as well-developed (at least in the volumes I’ve read), and she often serves as the voice of reason, but I do really like her relationship with her ghost dog, Hakubi. She is very pragmatic and accepts that she isn’t as powerful as Yoshimori so she takes care to be more accurate. The ongoing feud between Yoshimori’s grandfather and Tokine’s grandmother is also amusing.

I enjoy the world building and seeing the characters grow and mature over the series. If you like series such as Naruto and Full Metal Alchemist, I think that you’ll enjoy Kekkaishi.

Most Anticipated

Emma Dreams of Stars by Kan Takahama, Emmanuelle Maisonneuve and Julia Pavlowitch, published by Kodansha

I love finding out what people’s jobs are actually like, especially jobs that look glamorous to an outsider. This is based on a true story of a former Michelin guide inspector. The art looks good and is in full color to boot. This is probably not the manga to read when you’re feeling hungry.

Worst Manga

Beauty and the Feast by Satomi U, published by Square Enix

The premise of the series is that Shuko, a young widow of 28, has started cooking for her teenaged neighbor who is on the baseball team at a high school. Shohei is living by himself and since he’s busy from school and practice, he isn’t eating all that well.

I was hoping that this would be a cute slice-of-life cooking manga. Instead, a lot of Shuko’s behaviors are concerning and downright inappropriate. She bases her entire day around what she’s going to cook Shohei for dinner. And the artist takes pains to let us know that she has a banging bod with lingering shots of Shuko in the bath.

Shuko shows up unannounced at his school and watches him at practice. Another day she waits for him after his evening practice, saying that she was meeting a friend to view the cherry blossoms, but that the friend canceled. She asks Shohei to enjoy the picnic with her as she made all this food. Shohei agrees to the picnic, but Shuko later admits that she lied about meeting a friend. If the genders were reversed, and Shuko was a man in his late 20s waiting for a teenaged girl outside her high school in the evening, it would be clearer how wrong this situation is.