In the fifteen years that I’ve been reading manga, I’ve encountered a lot of people who are interested in crossing the literal comic-book aisle, but can’t find a low-cost, low-commitment option to guide them across that deceptively small patch of carpet. Picking a new genre presents new challenges: mainstream American comics are still primarily superheroes or science fiction, while manga runs the gamut from martial arts to monster girls. Page count is also intimidating: in Japan, comics are generally serialized in weekly or monthly magazines that allow the popular stories to run for years…which means the series with the biggest name recognition are frequently the longest. (The 83 and counting (!) volumes of One Piece take up two full shelves at my library.)
But fear not, faithful reader! For I have compiled a list of single volume manga to help you take your first steps into a vibrant art form.
Solanin by Inio Asano (VIZ)
Asano developed some name recognition among Western comics fans starting in 2009, when the English-language edition of Solanin was nominated at both the Harveys and the Eisners. Fans can find several of his character-driven single-volume comics on English-language bookshelves, but Solanin is the most accessible and—for me, at least—relatable. Meiko and Taneda are underemployed recent grads struggling with identity, tragedy, and artistic fulfillment amid Asano’s stunningly realistic illustrations of modern Japan.
All My Darling Daughters by Fumi Yoshinaga
Fumi Yoshinaga is a treasure and I’m annoyed that her name doesn’t come up more often in conversations about great female comics creators. All My Darling Daughters is a series of interconnected stories about mother-daughter relationships and the hard truths of womanhood in a patriarchal society. Yoshinaga’s art, full of close-ups and backgrounds that fade into negative space, exemplifies the emotion-centered style of girls’ and women’s manga.
The Gods Lie by Kaori Ozaki (Vertical)
Sixth-grader Natsuru avoids his preoccupied single mother and his dispiriting soccer camp by sneaking off to his new friend Rio’s house for a secret summer. Rio and her younger brother always have the run of their ramshackle house—but Natsuru quickly learns that Rio shoulders a lot of responsibility to preserve their independence. Their father, who has gone to America on business, may not be coming back…and they may be hiding a darker secret in the back garden. Much like recent anime hit Your Name, The Gods Lie is both heartbreaking and heartwarming.
The Angel of Elhamburg by Aki (Yen Press)
Ambitious young knights Madeth and Lalvan have conquered a castle guarded by an angel that only Lalvan can see. The charismatic Madeth becomes king with Lalvan’s (apparent) support, but all the battles they’ve fought together can’t protect their friendship from the paranoia inherent in absolute rule. Is the angel a protector, or simply an observer? Will both men be able to put aside their pride for the good of their country and themselves? The Angel of Elhamburg avoids simple answers.
Ristorante Paradiso by Natsume Ono (VIZ)
This memorable slice-of-life story introduces us to Nicoletta, the only female staff member of an upscale restaurant in Rome. She’s come to the city to find her estranged mother, but reunions of that type never work out as planned. Still, she finds friends among the eccentric waiters at Casetta dell’Orso, including a divorcee named Claudio who has never taken off his wedding ring. The three-volume sequel, Gente, provides a neat entry point into serialized manga.
Tekkonkinkreet by Taiyo Matsumoto
I’m sliding this in at the end because the English edition is technically three volumes of manga packed into one fat, gorgeous book. But this edition won the Eisner, so I feel justified. Plus, you’ll want the plus-sized version of Matsumoto’s urban fairytale about a pair of street kids fighting the mobsters who want to turn their home into a theme park. The Franco-Belgian-inspired cityscapes are definitely worth ogling. (If you want a Matsumoto book that’ll fit in your purse, his short-story collection Blue Spring is also available in English from VIZ.)
Got more recommendations? Stick ’em in the comments!