Rachel's 2021 Favorites: Part 1 (Serialized Comics and Manga)

For me, 2021 is likely the year where I read the highest number of comics, manga, and graphic novels. There are two big reasons for that. The first is that I joined the Panel Patter team, so I got access to a bunch of great comics and manga, and I was also recommended a ton of titles by fellow Patterers. The second reason is that I participated in a panel on the Best and Worst Manga of 2020 (see more here: http://www.panelpatter.com/2021/08/rachels-picks-of-best-and-worst-manga.html), and I took my participation as an invitation to buy a bunch of manga in the name of market research.

Many of my picks were published years ago, but I did read them during 2021. These are in no particular order.

1. Hikaru no Go, by Yumi Hotta and Takeshi Obata, published by Viz Media

Many years ago, I had a subscription to the print edition of Shonen Jump, and I used to always enjoy Hikaru no Go. Several months ago, I decided to reread it and was delighted to discover that it’s just as good as I remember. I’m currently up to volume 16 of this manga. I love how detailed each panel is, and it’s clear that a lot of research went into each chapter.

I’m always interested in learning about the systems that are in place, it’s why I love explainer manga like Cells at Work! Hikaru no Go goes in depth to the world of Go starting at the middle school level and progressing to professional play. The characters and their relationships with each other grow and change over the manga, and I even found myself getting a bit misty eyed at some of the storylines.

If you’re into manga or comics about sports, competitions, or games, you will likely enjoy Hikaru no Go.

2. Astra Lost in Space, by Kenta Shinohara, published in America by Viz Media

This is a series that was recommended to me by several people in a short span on time, including by Colton who I met while doing a panel on the best manga of 2020. Unlike a lot of the other series on this list, Astra Lost in Space only has five volumes, so it isn’t an expensive or time-consuming read.

Astra Lost in Space has a central mystery that will remind readers of Agatha Christie’s closed-circle mysteries. Nearly every chapter featured MacGyvering and problem solving, like a planet-hopping version of Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island. Though I went into the series knowing that there was a plot twist, I neither figured out the twist nor did the turn of events feel like a cheap gimmick. I stayed up way too late on several nights in a row while reading this series. 

3. One-Punch Man, Created by ONE and Yusuke Murata, published by Viz Media

I am not the target demographic for this series. I generally don’t like comics, manga, or shows that are so heavily focused around two characters punching each other. But there’s just something about One-Punch Man that I really enjoy. Perhaps it’s because there are so many interesting characters, many of whom seem like homages to other works and others who feel unique to this world. The art is also wonderful, which always helps, and Yusuke Murata is not just skilled at depicting fights but at evoking a massive scale. 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.

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

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.

 5. Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun by Aidalro, published by Yen Press

[Full disclosure, I've proofread several volumes of this series for Yen Press since volume 6]

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.

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. 

6. Giant Day, by John Allison, Lissa Treiman, Max Sarin, Julia Madrigal, published by Boom! Studios

Panel Patter’s own Mike recommended this series to me, when I said that I was looking for a slice-of-life series where the fate of the Earth, humanity, the universe, etc. wasn’t hanging in the balance. Not only has Giant Days quickly become one of my favorite comic series of all time, it has to be one of the best portrayals of college life (though it’s not the only one on this list, see more below). I love the relationship between Esther, Daisy, and Susan; the humor and British slang; and how we see these young women realize who they are and what it is that they want from life.  There are aspects of the fictionalized University of Sheffield that remind me of my time at college. Giant Days has been a bright spot for me in 2021. I’m going to be sad when I finish this series.  

7. Witch Hat Atelier, by Kamome Shirahama, Published by Kodansha International

Possibly one of the most beautiful graphic comics/manga series I’ve ever read. The closest comparison I can make is to Bride Story by Kaoru Mori. I really like that magic in this world works visually, witches need to draw a seal and once they close the circle of the seal, the magic is activated. So many other fantasy books use verbal spells or physical gestures, so it was neat to see a different approach to magic use. The world building also feels more unique from that of most fantasy worlds. The animals in the world are perhaps not the most unique, but they certainly are cute. Fans of Hayao Miyazaki anime, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, and The Neverending Story by Michael Ende will likely enjoy this series. 

8. The Low, Low Woods, by Carmen Maria Machado, Dani, and Tamra Bonvillain, published by DC Black Label 2019 to 2020, collected edition published 2020

Years ago, something happened here in Shudder-to-Think. One day, it was just your regular piece-of-shit coal-mining town where people died the way God and the company intended: hacking up pieces of lung or crushed beneath ten tons of rock.” Machado has this beautiful, haunting writing style that draws you into The Low, Low Woods. Shudder-to-Think must be one of the most damned towns in all of fiction, and dread covers every surface like soot. And yet Octavia and El feel like vital, real teenagers and not just stock characters going about in this hellmouth. I’m glad that I waited to read this in the collected edition because I had to know what was going on and wouldn’t have waited patiently for monthly installments. 

9. Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! By Sumito Oowara, published by Dark Horse Comics starting in 2020

Recommended by Brigid Alverson on the Best Manga of 2020 panel. A zany, super fun read. Love that these girls are so passionate about creating anime and building their own worlds. A pleasant change to have high school girls who both seem to act a lot like real high schoolers and to not be all that interested in romance. The art and even the lettering felt like something I haven’t really seen before. This would be a great series for a preteen or teenager who moves to the beat of their own drum. 

10. 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.

Unlike most of the other titles on my list, Cells at Work! Code Black isn’t all that cute or funny. Things are generally tense and they get very stressful at times. The stakes feel far more real in this series than in most manga or comics, and that may not be what you’re looking for. The main series and Cells at Work! Baby are also great options that have more humor. 

11. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, by Ryan North, Erica Henderson, Derek Charm, and Rico Renzi, published by Marvel 

Along with The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes, every kid should have some of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl books to read. This is a title where it seems like all of the creators was having a blast. Doreen Greenaka Squirrel Girlis a truly inspirational role model. Unlike many superheroes, she didn’t get into crimefighting in order to get revenge or because she was cast out by society; instead, she fights crime because she feels it is the right thing to do. Nor does she see physical punishment and/or jail as the way of stopping crime. She asks would-be criminals, thieves, and attackers what they are hoping to accomplish. Using empathy, common sense, and problem solving, Squirrel Girl is able to get many of these malcontents to not only not rob banks, mug people, eat planets, etc. but to change their lives.

North includes a lot about computer science, animal biology, dinosaurs (unsurprising considering that North is the creator of Dinosaur Comics), and more. There are wonderful, silly footnotes in every issue by Ryan North. North’s footnotes, which I have to admit sometimes do seem to been in a typeface that is a bit small for my Millennial eyes, remind me of Terry Pratchett’s footnotes in his Discworld books and of Sydney Padua’s The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (one of my all-time favorite graphic novels).

Squirrel Girl doesn’t have an eight-pack, she isn’t six feet tall, her hair doesn’t look like an ad for Pantene shampoo, and she doesn’t appear to be stashing two cantaloupes in her bra. Instead, artists Erica Henderson (volume 1–31) and Derek Charm (volumes 32–50) both draw Squirrel Girl to look more like the average college-aged woman (minus the squirrel tail).  All types of body shapes are shown on the page and that makes this version of New York City actually feel a lot more realistic than the way the city is portrayed in a lot of other superhero series. Henderson did a really nice job with Doreen’s everyday outfits and it’s clear that she put a lot of thought into what Doreen wears and how functional different articles would be.

All of the creators seem thrilled to interact with the series’ fans, who range from young first-time readers to comic fans who’ve been reading the medium for decades. Parents, teachers, and librarians also show up in the fan letter pages. There aren’t many comics that resonate so deeply with such a large cross-section of the population, and I think that’s because USG works on several levels. There are fun superhero fights for younger readers, clever cameos by Marvel characters for comic fans, and problem solving and emotional intelligence for parents, educators, and librarians. We all could use more comics like The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.