When someone says “I’m reading a comic book,” my mind now naturally goes to Marvel, Image, manga, and the like. But for a larger audience, comic and comic book could still mean the Sunday funnies. And I try to keep the topic of manga out of my larger public conversation for fear of what will come out of it…
But in manga, I’ve rarely read a straight up comedy that I legitimately enjoyed. There was no Peanuts or Calvin and Hobbes equivalent in what I’ve read of manga until very recently. There are things that are funny, but that isn’t their main purpose—like, most things that run in Shonen Jump have comedic elements, but they do other stuff primarily. Find the One Piece, become Hokage, defeat Aizen or Aizen-alternatives. There’s also the weird, off-beat (well, not off-beat to me, but I’ve read a lot of manga) shojo jokes that usually tickle or offend me, and rarely in between. But those are typically love stories of varying quality.
Recently, though, Vertical Comics has taken it upon themselves to release quality comedy manga in the form of Takuma Morishige’s My Neighbor Seki (Tonari no Seki-kun) and Keiichi Arawi’s Nichijou (My Ordinary Life). I listed the titles as they are on the cover, with the alternative title—in the former case, its untranslated form, and in the latter, its translated form—because that’s how they are for whatever reason. Through this, I’ll refer to them as Seki-kun and Nichijou.
I watched both the Seki-kun and Nichijou anime on Crunchyroll as they came out; I LOVED Seki-kun, especially its jam band ending song, but was relatively lukewarm on Nichijou. I attribute this to having watched it marathon style; I don’t suggest this method of watching for almost any sketch comedy, which is exactly what these are. Imagine Saturday Night Live or Portlandia skits, except they’re split into 10 minute episodes every week, and you got Seki-kun. Or if they’re three minutes long over a duration of 24 minutes and you got Nichijou.
The manga for both deliver everything I wanted from their anime adaptations, and possibly more. I was laughing hard throughout the entirety of both of these books and for completely different reasons. The antics of Seki are entertaining enough, but it’s the reactions of Yokoi that carry the book’s weight. Seeing her enthusiastically join in on some of Seki’s classroom projects, only to realize she’s missed something important in class, always tickles me. On the other hand, Nichijou goes hard right when you expect it to go hard left; I’m fairly sure the “zig when you expect it to zag” phrase came from someone reading Nichijou. The opening pages introduce a character on a roof with no shoes wondering how she got there, and oh she has a key on her back (the same kind you’d see on a wind-up toy). Also the vice principal wrestles a deer, in what is an infamous gif from the anime.
Nichijou and Seki-kun aren’t the kind of gag comic that you would read in the Sunday funnies, but it’s hardly laid out in the same manner. They aren’t paneled as simply as those comics are; they’re both paneled like a non-comedy manga, but deceptively so. They don’t have the same vertical lines or overlaying panels that I’m so accustomed to seeing in manga.
There are, however, manga that follow the Sunday funny format. In Japan, they’re called yonkoma (four panel) comics and they adhere to a formula, or at least they do as much as a generalizing formula can encapsulate an entire subgenre of manga. It goes ki (起), shō (承), ten (転), then ketsu (結). Setting the scene, developing the scene, the climax, then the conclusion, respectively. This kind of simplistic breakdown of storytelling is about as reductive and useful as the three act structure though; when you break down a story this far, of course everything within these wide constraints are going to fit within it. But I digress.
The appeals of Seki-kun and Nichijou are hard to put on paper because it’s comedy. Try to describe why you like any sitcom, and the answer is going to be myriad and likely focus on its plots, stories, or characters. There’s little in the way of plot, story, or character in either of these, so ask the following: “Why is [Community / Girls / Silicon Valley] funny?” and the answer will be different almost every time, or it’ll be vague. You can’t quite describe why something is funny because doing so would likely ruin the joke itself. Comedy is hard! But flip through the first chapter of these at the book store…that’ll give enough indication whether these are worth it.