Insert Witty Portmanteau: Manga Recommendations for Quarantine

Even before this whole plague thing happened, I was starting to worry that I wasn’t reading enough. I would read a bit on the train (let’s pause to think wistfully about taking the train), but my commute wasn’t long enough to get through even a chapter. And I’d read during lunch, but that’s hard to do while trying to scarf down my sandwich. I was also making the mistake of trying to read Dostoevsky under these conditions. I feel confident saying Dostoevsky is ambitious under the best of conditions.

But once my commute and my standardized lunchtime disappeared, so did my incentive to read. Dostoevsky went back on the shelf. I spent the extra time free at home either playing games or watching TV. Perfectly fine pastimes, obviously, we do plenty of that on the blog, but I like reading! I wanted to get back to it. I just couldn’t get in to any “normal” books.

So, for a change of pace, I splurged the whole $2 per month for Shonen Jump’s membership program. And, while I have been doing a better job with prose books too (I’ll touch on that in the conclusion), I’ve found manga very easy to get through in this current world. That’s not because it’s easier to read, not exactly, but it just takes less time to get through a chapter. My ability to focus on something for any significant length of time has totally eroded. I need to feel like I’m making progress.

So! I’m shamelessly copping Madelyn’s CoronAnime Recap series (minus the funny memes, I’m just not a funny person, I’m sorry), and we’re going to go through the eight manga I’m currently reading. Not all of them are from Shonen Jump, so we’ve got some variety. Maybe with one of these, you’ll be able to get back into reading slowly too. I mean, you’re reading this blog post! That’s a start! Go team!

Chainsaw Man

Tatsuki Fujimoto, Shonen Jump

Tagline: The future rules! Say it with me! The future rules!

# of Chapters: 94 at the time of this writing (ongoing)

Warnings: Nudity, sexual content, gore, chunky vomit. No, really, the vomit grosses me out a lot, it’s gross.

One Page to Sell It: We’re going to go with this iconic shot. I started paying attention to Chainsaw Man when I saw this on Twitter, so it’s proven to work.

What’s the Deal:

When Denji’s father dies, all he leaves behind for his orphaned son is a huge debt to pay off. In order to do so, Denji works as a devil hunter with his devil chainsaw dog…thing…okay, his name is Pochita, let’s not worry about the rest of it. Denji survives on modest dreams, hoping that one day he’ll eat bread with jam for breakfast or stay up all night playing video games with a girl he likes. But even those small comforts are distant and out of reach.

When the people he’s paying off leave him to die, Pochita decides to offer Denji the chance to survive. He exchanges his own heart for Denji’s promise to fulfill his dreams and live a normal life. And so, the Chainsaw Man is born.

Up until the chapters in the early 60s, Chainsaw Man was a pretty standard Shonen Jump offering. One with a bit more of an edgy side to it — Denji rides a shark devil in his chainsaw form in order to take down a huge typhoon baby and a hot bomb lady, so I don’t want to make it sound like it was boring or anything — but the general plot was somewhat conventional outside of that violence-and-sex bit. 

There were definitely still interesting elements before we hit the turning point. Denji’s background of extreme poverty makes him a distinctive character to follow. This is the first time in his life he’s passed the first rung of the hierarchy of needs, and his behavior reflects that. In the supporting characters, there’s a metaphor to be made in how Aki’s work shaves literal years off his life, and a nugget of emotional truth to Power’s love of her stray cat. There are things to dig into and appreciate, but it’s generally just a lot of silly fun.

And then, they went to hell. 

From there the story has begun to careen off-course into something far more difficult to get through. Not in that it’s bad, but rather it seesaws rapidly between devastating and absurd every single chapter, until the two things have become indistinguishable. There’s still the classic stuff, it’s just…warped somehow.

Chainsaw Man is hard to recommend because I simply have absolutely no idea where it is going, even as it’s started to explain itself a little more. It’s in the final stretch, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ending soon (EDITOR EMMA: Apparently it’s gonna end on Chapter 97, I’m ??????). There’s still so much to do, and yet not very much at the same time. It’s scary when something goes off the rails and you’ve got no idea whether it’s headed for a crash or not. But it’s kind of exhilarating too.

Recommended for: Fans of chainsaws, body horror, and sudden sucker punches to the heart

Not recommended for: People who want to open doors without traumatic flashbacks to a manga series

Kaiju No. 8

Naoya Matsumoto, Jump+

Tagline: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em and then beat ’em with your new cool skeleton body

# of Chapters: 18 at the time of this writing (ongoing)

Warnings: Existential crises about being in your 30s

One Page to Sell It:

I’m about to cheat here, since these are three pages, but it is just way too cool. Remember, right to left, not left to right.

What’s the Deal:

Kafka Hibino gave up on his dream of fighting kaiju a long time ago, instead settling in with the clean-up crew in charge of dealing with the carcasses left behind. But when the fresh-faced, eighteen year old Reno Ichikawa joins the crew with his own dreams of fighting one day, Kafka’s long-dead desire to join the Defense Force is reignited.

After an incident with a kaiju that was not as dead as it appeared, Kafka and Reno decide try out for the Defense Force together. But, at that very moment, a small flying kaiju appears and forces itself down Kafka’s throat. Suddenly, Kafka finds himself with the ability to turn into a kaiju himself, and an extremely powerful one at that.

Do you get it? His name is Kafka. He, you know. He metamorphs? I’ve got to assume this is on purpose.

This is probably my most tentative recommendation on this list, since this manga is still pretty new. Series that start out promisingly can always lose steam and fall apart later down the line. But Kaiju No. 8 has had such a strong start that I couldn’t exclude it. It’s a story that feels like it’s confident in the direction its headed, like it knows what it wants to do and where it’s going. And I’d like to see it able to get there without facing cancellation first.

Considering this, Chainsaw Man, and one more series we’ll get to later down the list, I think I just really  am a sucker for creative monster design. It’s an element that’s hard to capture in animation, especially when the monsters are as big as the ones in this series. High profile efforts like Attack on Titan manage to do so most of the time, but that’s the exception, not the rule (and sometimes comes at a great human cost…not that that’s not true of manga too). Any adaptations of these types of series are always going to be different from the manga. Different does not always mean worse, by the way, just different.

But Kaiji No. 8 already demonstrates a pretty great sense of motion and impact in its battle scenes, despite the fact that they’re still frames. I’m particularly partial to the panels showing high-powered shots ripping holes straight through a kaiju’s flesh. And the panels I call attention to above are just absurd. There was no reason to draw the impact of that punch through every step of its process and yet that’s exactly what they did.

And, of course, none of this would matter if the series wasn’t setting up a good cast. Reno and Kafka are a fun team to follow, and supporting characters like kaiju-fighting girl genius Kikoru Shinomiya are already being given room to grow. If it ends up headed south then, ah well, I guess. But I’ll enjoy the ride until then.

Recommended for: Do ya like kaiju? Do ya like kaiju fights? Do ya?

Not recommended for: Those who prefer their monsters bite-sized

Blue Flag

Kaito, Jump+

Tagline: Hell yeah, it’s a real love triangle, a triangle with an extra little line even!

# of Chapters: 54 (completed)

Warnings: Painful adolescence

One Page to Sell It:

Look, if a man wants to look at a plant and frankly point out one of the main ideas of the story he’s in, let the man look at that plant.

What’s the Deal:

In his third year of high school, Taichi Ichinose finds himself in the same class as a girl named Futaba Kuze. Futuba is clumsy and shy, and Taichi can’t help but dislike her, seeing too much of himself in her struggles. In trying to overcome his unfair distaste for her, he ends up agreeing to help her with her crush on Toma Mita, star athlete and Taichi’s own childhood best friend.

However, Taichi’s idea of Toma’s type might not be as accurate as he thinks, and Taichi’s own feelings towards Futaba change into something more like a crush as they continue to hang out together. As Taichi, Toma, Futaba, and Futaba’s best friend Masumi grow closer, their secret feelings start to come out.

Blue Flag is actually the only finished manga on this list, although I, personally, have not finished it. It’s not currently available to read in full anywhere online, so far as I can tell. I’m just collecting the volumes as they’re translated, so I’m technically only through volume 4 (aka chapter 24). But I’ve heard only good things about it, so I’m trusting that word of mouth to carry me through to the end. And I really like what I’ve gotten so far in those 24 chapters.

Like the tagline said, this is an actual love triangle. You don’t find this out explicitly for a few chapters, but it’s certainly implied from the start: the person Toma is in love with is actually Taichi. So we’ve got Taichi -> Futaba, Futaba -> Toma, and Toma -> Taichi, plus Masumi on the side with her own crush on Futaba. My pedantic 8th grade self who loved to point out “love triangles are actually love Vs if you think about it” is feeling very validated.

While the set-up seems to be rife for petty drama, the real appeal is in the full group dynamic. There’s still plenty of drama, but our characters care about each other. The friendships and how that grows is just as appealing as any romantic elements. Despite how they present themselves, these kids all worry that they’re doing something wrong and get frustrated with themselves. Of course, the irony is that everyone feels that way, especially in high school, but all of our characters have trouble realizing that. I point to the panel above again.

Oh Toma. So smart. So stupid.

Recommended for: Bleeding hearts

Not recommended for: Those who want more flashy flashy bang bang. Plenty of other offerings for you, don’t worry

Witch Hat Atelier

Kamome Shirahama, Monthly Morning Two

Tagline: Feeling uncomfortable with a certain other series involving kids learning magic? Well, have I got a better series for you!

# of Chapters: 41 at the time of this writing (ongoing)

Warnings: Children in peril? Who am I kidding, that’s almost all these offerings.

One Page to Sell It: Almost every panel could sell this manga. It’s startlingly gorgeous. I read it in physical volumes which makes my choices slightly more limited, but this is still one of my favorites.

Richeh embracing Euini's wolf form

What’s the Deal:

Coco is a kind and curious girl with a deep love of magic, despite not being born a witch herself. One day, a witch named Qifrey comes to town, and she secretly observes how he casts magic. Recognizing the runes he draws from a book she bought as a child, she tries copying a spell on her own. Inexperienced and too excited, she ends up accidentally casting a forbidden spell which turns her mother to stone.

Qifrey is meant to take her memories of the event, protecting the secret of witchcraft: the fact that anyone can do it, as long as they know the right shapes to draw. Coco’s desperation to remember and find a way to turn her mother back, along with Qifrey’s own curiosity about her taboo book, convince him not to, instead taking her on as his newest apprentice. But witch society does not approve of outsiders, and Coco herself has a lot of learning to do.

Witch Hat Atelier is stupid good. If you need something to fill the magic school hole in your heart after JK Rowling has continued to espouse her TERF views, I couldn’t point to anything better. But as much as this manga captures the wonder of magic, it’s also about the universal wonder of learning and the responsibility of a teacher. Qifrey lives apart from the main society of witches, taking on apprentices who had struggled with more traditional forms of education. He helps them learn in their own way, and that becomes a major theme throughout the work.

If one style of learning does not work for a student, what can you do to make that lesson accessible to them? How can you encourage the strengths of a learner and help them discover ways to deal with the parts that give them more trouble, whether that’s due to colorblindness or anxiety? Qifrey thinks about these questions as he teaches his apprentices, and his apprentices think about those questions in turn when they need to help someone else. Magic is wonderous, but the lessons about the roles of a student and a teacher could be applied to any subject.

And, of course, there’s a world to discover here too, with its own history and secrets. Qifrey, for all his strengths as a teacher, has his own hidden agenda, and Coco must contend with the forbidden faction of witches known as the Brimmed Hats coming after her. I am ready and eager to learn more about all of this.

Recommended for: People who really liked school (or at least learning)

Not recommended for: Hard, jaded realists

Hell’s Paradise: Jigokuraku

Yuji Kaku, Jump+

Tagline: Okay sure, maybe you love your wife, but do you love her enough to fight a fish with arms???

# of Chapters: 119 at the time of this writing (ongoing)

Warnings: Nudity, sexual content, gore, some questionable gender stuff (The main villains can shift between male and female forms. This is seen as unnerving by the protagonists, but it’s not the reason they’re the villains. It doesn’t feel malicious to me, just fraught and maybe a little uninformed. Your mileage may vary, basically.) 

One Page to Sell It: This was really damn hard, to be honest? But we’re gonna go with this one.

What’s the Deal:

Gabimaru the Hollow, an infamous shinobi, is set to be executed for his crimes, but none of the execution methods seem to be working on him. Sensing that part of Gabimaru still wants to live, the sword-tester Sagiri offers him another path- sail to a mysterious island with other criminals and compete to see who can bring back the elixir of life. Whichever criminal does will receive a pardon and a second chance at life. Gabimaru decides to take the opportunity in the hopes that he can see his wife again.

But the island is more dangerous than any of them could have imagined, inhabited by monsters beyond any of their wildest imaginations. The criminals and their sword-tester partners will have to adapt in order to survive.

Yuji Kaku used to work as an assistant for Chainsaw Man‘s Tatsuki Fujimoto, so it’s real fun to read their latest chapters one after another and get a nice one-two punch to the sternum. This is sarcasm. When I do that, I have to lay on the floor and stare at the ceiling for ten minutes.

If Hell’s Paradise has one thing over Chainsaw Man, it’s the artwork and the monster designs. It’s not that Chainsaw Man is bad but sometimes I just have to stop and stare at what’s on the page and wonder how on earth Yuji Kaku came up with this stuff. Like, is he okay? How does he come up with this stuff? How can he stand to bring these designs to life with such a deft and detailed hand?

I don’t want to undersell the characters though. Hell’s Paradise is a bit more discerning with its kill count than Chainsaw Man, but the losses pack a punch all the same. The group that’s been put together for this final segment is made up of an incredibly strong bunch, both in their fighting skills and in their personalities and motivations. I dearly love them all. They’re fun to hang around with and they’re easy to root for. Even the main group of villains is given some room for development.

For all the gender stuff I mention in the warnings, I do like that one of the main messages of the story is that you have to embrace both traditional masculinity and traditional femininity to be an effective warrior on this island. Rationality and emotion. Anger and compassion. Strength and weakness. All these things are important, and you have to find a balance. I think that’s a lovely message to find in a genre that mostly focuses on purely physical, masculine strength.

Recommended for: Does a fish with arms do anything for you? Like a big, giant fish with many arms?

Not recommended for: Anybody who’s just read the latest Chainsaw Man. I’m serious, take like a twenty minute break in between. This is targeted at myself. Emma, put the phone down.

Toilet Bound Hanako-kun

Iro Aida, Monthly GFantasy

Tagline: You know what the kids love these days? Confronting their own mortality. Just so hip.

# of Chapters: 72 at the time of this writing (ongoing)

Warnings: In real life, some of these kids would have a somewhat worrying attitude about death. But it makes sense within the context of the series.

One Panel to Sell It:

Ah man, and I thought Jigokuraku was hard. I have so many damn screenshots from this series…okay, fine, here we go.

What’s the Deal:

Listen, okay, I know the title sounds bad. It sounds like some poor kid with gastrointestinal problems getting into toilet-humor hijinks. It is not, in fact, about that.

When Yashiro Nene knocks on the third stall of the bathroom, expecting to find the legendary Hanako-san, she instead finds Hanako-kun, the ghost of a boy dressed in an old-fashioned school uniform. He does grant wishes, however, just like she’d heard, and he agrees to help her win the heart of her handsome and popular crush. However his process involves more self-help books than spiritual powers.

Impatient with his methods, she steals a pair of binding mermaid scales from him. But, after swallowing her own, she finds she can’t go through with tying her crush to her by feeding him the other. To keep Nene from being stuck as a fish forever, Hanako-kun eats the other scale, binding their fates together and leaving Nene henceforth entangled in the world of the supernatural.

God, I love this manga. I watched the anime adaptation by Lerche this past winter and pretty much immediately dove into the source material. Everything about this series just clicks for me. It’s creepy and tragic and haunting, but it knows how to balance itself out with letting its cast have fun together too.

I can’t understate the strength of the art too. If there’s something other than monster designs that gets me, it’s how well the artist can capture hands. I know this sounds a little weird but Iro Aida has an absolute mastery over hands. They contain so much emotion, really selling some of the most impactful parts of the series. But these hands also exist as part of very memorable character designs, and the environments of the Boundaries that our characters visit are sometimes absurd in their detail.

Hanako himself strictly believes that his time is over, regardless of how he bonds with Nene and (later) the exorcist boy Kou. Ultimately, he would rather keep the boundaries between them clear and strong, keeping them alive and him alone. But Nene and Kou push at that boundary more than once, for more than just Hanako himself. Nene keeps travelling back in time to when Hanako was alive, and Kou has become far more interested in being friends with ghosts than in exorcising them.

Despite its unfortunate title translation, Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun has a lot to say about life, death, and life after death and not too much to say about bathrooms.

Recommended for: Anybody who tried to summon Bloody Mary at a sleepover in middle school.

Not recommended for: Anyone who is, in fact, scared of those ghosts.

Spy x Family

Tatsuya Endo, Jump+

Tagline: The Forgers are just a completely normal family, thank you.

# of Chapters: 36 at the time of this writing (ongoing)

Warnings: Murder. Spy stuff. Shenanigans.

One Panel to Sell It: This is exclusively targeting Madelyn. Also, everyone who loves dogs, I guess

What’s the Deal:

Twilight is one of the best spies in the business, working on behalf of the government to keep war from breaking out again through secret missions. However, his latest assignment is a little out of the ordinary: in order to get closer to a high profile person of interest, he must marry and have a child. Oh, and he’s only got about a week to do so.

Yor is an infamous assassin by night but an employee at city hall by day. As a single woman living alone, she’s viewed with both pity and suspicion in this society. In an impulsive move after her brother offers to introduce her to someone, she makes up a fake boyfriend. Unfortunately, that means she has to produce one.

Anya is an experimental test subject, abandoned in an orphanage. She’s desperate for both entertainment and for a real family. Also, those tests left her with the ability to read minds. So, when a secret spy comes along, she does what she can to make him pick her.

Bond is a dog. He can see the future. Woof.

For being a digital-only, biweekly release, Spy x Family has been an absolute runaway success. With just five collected volumes so far (two of which are currently in English, with more on the way), it’s sold over five-and-a-half million copies. Just know that that’s an absolutely astounding figure for any manga, not just a digital one. And I don’t think it’s hard to see why.

Despite the wild professions and abilities of the characters, Spy x Family is ultimately about found family. All the little moments of being married and raising a kid (and a dog) are heightened due to the secrets everybody is keeping form each other, but the story is still packed with those moments. They celebrate when Anya is accepted into a school, and they do their best to support each other when someone’s feeling down. Sometimes they also have to secretly save the world, but that’s beside the point.

Everything works really well, but Anya is absolutely the highlight. She’s not the most realistic little kid, but she can read minds after all. That power is just as likely to get her in to trouble as it is to get her out of it. While it lets her in on the family secrets, she’s just as likely to misunderstand something as anyone else. After all, she is, like, five years old.

If you give any of these manga a try, to be honest, make it this one. I don’t think it’s my absolute favorite from the bunch, but it’s absolutely the one with the most universal appeal. I guarantee you’ll like it, and you’ll probably even love it.

Recommended for: Those looking for a fix of found family shenanigans.

Not recommended for: Uh…I don’t know, people who hate laughter and joy I guess.

Yona of the Dawn

Mizuho Kusanagi, Hana to Yume

Tagline: Here’s a drinking game: take a shot every time Jaeha’s carrying someone piggyback. Spice it up with a different alcohol per character. Just kidding don’t do this you’ll die.

# of Chapters: 199 at the time of this writing (ongoing)

Warnings: Yona’s in love with her cousin at the beginning, which is a little weird. It is a historical drama, I guess. Also, severely doubtful that that’s going to be an endgame relationship.

One Panel to Sell It:

Too many powerful Yonas to choose from tbh

What’s the Deal:

Princess Yona turns sixteen in happiness, with a doting father, loyal servants, and her one true love, Su-won. But when she visits her father that evening, intending to beg him to let her marry Su-won, she finds her crush already there, with a sword driven through her father’s heart. She narrowly escapes with her life, alongside her attendant Hak, but life outside the palace walls is far harsher than she’d ever imagined.

To gather strength to her side, Yona decides to embark on a quest to find the four legendary Great Dragons who once served at the side of the Crimson Dragon King. But journeying through the kingdom gives her a better look at what her father’s rule has done to her people, and the Dragons themselves have their own share of problems.

Madelyn just wrapped up watching the anime, but the rest of the story is hidden here in the source material, and it’s some really good stuff.

Pretty much as soon as our main group of characters finally come together, they form a fake group of bandits to fight off tax collectors and soldiers from impoverished, plague-ridden villages. They call their group “The Dark Dragon and the Happy Hungry Bunch.” This name sticks around across multiple chapters. If this doesn’t sell you on Yona of the Dawn, I don’t know what will, to be honest.

No, there’s a lot of stuff to love with this series. There’s a well-realized historical fantasy world with a strong sense of place and culture. There’s fun fights and action scenes. The group dynamic only gets better and better as more characters come in to the travelling party. And Yona herself is a compelling protagonist who is never overshadowed by the loud personalities of the men around her.

She struggles with her grief and love for her father while recognizing that he has done a lot of harm to the land during his reign. Against his wishes, she picks up a weapon, because she believes she can use it to help, not to harm. She inspires others to work to make a difference through her own strength and dedication.

If there’s a real tagline for Yona of the Dawn, it’s a line that’s brought up by former antagonist Kan Tae-jung more than once: “someday” is too late. It’s easy to sit back and assume “someday” will come eventually. It’s much harder to take the first step to actively make “someday” into “today.” But that’s exactly what The Dark Dragon and the Happy Hungry Bunch do, and their actions inspire those around them to use their power to do the same.

Recommended for: Anybody who hears the words “The Dark Dragon and the Happy Hungry Bunch” and thinks “hell yeah”

Not recommended for: Any killjoys who hear the words “The Dark Dragon and the Happy Hungry Bunch” and thinks “no way”

I’ve also gotten the Libby app on my phone recently, which I’ve been using to check books out of the library. I’ve managed to work my way through a few books including The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, How to Be Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, and Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis, all of which I recommend for varying reasons. I’m now getting back in to Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo which is the sort of posh magical realism that I used to just eat up. It’s been a nice throwback.

What have you been reading in this weird time? Any manga or other book recommendations? Hit us up on social media or leave it in the comments!

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