The Spinal Column

December 30, 2011

When you have a ton of manga, you spend a lot of time staring at the spines. In addition to relevant information, most spines have a small or cropped version of the cover. Surprisingly, very few artists take the opportunity to make their series stand out on the shelf by doing something special on the spines. There might be a few good reasons for this, perhaps the best one is that bookstores usually stock multiple copies of recent volumes, so a continuous image would be spoiled in the best setting for it anyway. But still, I love it when collections take advantage of the fact I’m going to be staring at the spine, and not the cover, for a long time after I buy it. Plus, getting to add another piece to a continuous image appeals to obsessive-compulsive collector types like me.

Here’s a look at the handful of series I’ve spotted with something special running along the spine.

One of the most famous is the image that runs along the spine of all 42 volumes of Dragonball. Well, I’m not sure how “famous” this is, but there are about 200 million copies of this series out there, so it’s the one that you’re most likely to run across. It’s also one of the most elaborate of the continuous illustrations I’ve seen. Since the series is so long, there are around 25 characters featured.

The first seven volumes have Shenlong and the dragon balls, of course… The fact you collect seven dragon balls to summon the dragon for a wish was the original premise of the series, after all.

The last half of the Dragon Ball part of the story has all the main characters on the spine… Goku, Pu’ar, Oolong, Bulma, Kuririn, Master Roshi, and a few others. Goku’s riding his Kintoun, and the trail from that continues until about volume 30 or so.

And more characters from Dragonball and the beginning of Dragon Ball Z. Yajirobe’s on there twice, something that Toriyama apologizes for in the author notes. If you’re going to repeat someone, Yajirobe’s the guy for the job. Also notice that King Kai is, for whatever reason, waving around poop on a stick in front of Vegeta’s face. It’s a shame there weren’t a few more gags slipped in there.

Cell and the androids round out the last ten or so volumes, with Goten bringing up the rear.

I don’t really have a lot to say about these, other than showing them off, so moving on…

There’s a few series that use adorable spine illustrations like this. I know I’m forgetting a few of these, but Kimi ni Todoke is a favorite. I think Sawako is supposed to be a Koropokkur or something.

I always kind of liked the simple spine design on Vertical’s 3-volume edition of Dororo.

But the better Vertical Osamu Tezuka spine design, and probably my hands down favorite of these spine designs, is on the hardcover edition of Buddha. Unfortunately, this case is behind my pinball machine, so I couldn’t take a good photo. But it looks really nice on the bookcase. Plus, it’s got collector’s bragging rights, because I think the 6th volume is a little hard to find, making the set difficult to complete in hardcover.

Another good Tezuka spine design, this is the Kodansha bilingual release of Princess Knight. The 2-volume Vertical edition is better in just about every way, but the 6-part Sapphire illustration on the spines of the Kodansha edition here is a particular favorite of mine.

The VizBig edition of Vagabond has a different character on every volume, which forms this continuous illustration when they’re all lined up on the bookcase. This is also a favorite, but there’s something more striking about the aging Buddha image for the Vertical books.

Dragon Girl is a fun, if slightly forgettable, shoujo series by Toru Fujieda. Dragon Girl was published in two omnibus volumes in English by Yen Press, and has an image of the main character decorating the spine. I will always remember this series for the author notes where Fujieda explained that she had to fight with her editor to have the main male character wearing the beard and moustache she wanted. The compromise was that he could never appear on the cover of Princess Magazine, because guys with facial hair are forbidden. Also, this is a manga in English about an ouendan cheering squad, which is fairly uncommon.

As if I didn’t like it enough already, the Japanese editions of X feature a continuous spine illustration, with one character from the series on every volume. The same character is featured on the back jacket illustration, and also on a tarot card on the inside jacket sleeve. Because I’m a bad fan and/or poor, I only have the first ten volumes in Japanese. The first two editions in English from Viz do not include these illustrations on the spine, but the new X omnibus does, with the first three volumes combined into one illustration.

Wild Act, by Rie Takada, has the main character’s pet flying squirrels up to various hijinx on the spine of every volume. Not only is it a great series, it gives you the opportunity to see flying squirrels every time you look at your shelves.

Detective Conan is last. I know I said Buddha was my favorite, but Detective Conan definitely has the most clever spine design. It’s long enough, even in English, that one photo won’t do this justice, but here you can see that every volume has a small illustration of Conan’s head on the spine.

The first few volumes are a little underwhelming. Just Conan making various cute faces. Then Aoyama gets bored, and a narrative begins running from volume 8 on.

It’s not a very interesting narrative (Conan gets slapped, yawns, eats a bug, freaks out, et cetera), but the fact that there’s continuity from volume to volume is infinitely fascinating to me.

8 Responses to “The Spinal Column”

  1. ZeroSD Says:

    I like it when there’s at least something on there

  2. Autsanaut Says:

    Yeah, when it’s just a bar of colour that doesn’t change (Genshiken I’m looking at you) it kind of cheapens what you’ve bought. Not a deal breaker, but it is nice when they’ve considered how it’ll look on the shelf. The Yotsuba volumes have good spines too: Yotsuba in varying moods of happiness or sadness or shock and my favourite one is with her back turned, as if hiding. She was cute enough to begin with.

    And the Gintama volumes all have a cutesy picture of one of the characters from the previous volumes cover on the side, starting from Gintoki and progressing through the main cast. Definitely looks good on the bookcase. The illustrations are also bigger on the English versions than on the JP volumes, so we lucked out in that regard.


  3. […] looks at manga that have a picture running across their spines at Slightly Biased […]

  4. Sara K. Says:

    In the past year, I have found spines to be extremely useful. Now that I live in the Chinese-speaking world, almost all of the comics I encounter are in Chinese. Now I can, technically, browse in Chinese … but browsing the spine illustrations is much faster, so as long as it belongs to the 95% of comics which put *something* on the spine, I’ll look at the spine illustrations when I am trying to find something, and only look at the title second.

  5. annamations Says:

    how did you get vol 41 of case closed already ?

  6. Connie Says:

    annamations: It’s a review copy I haven’t read yet. ^_^;

    Also, I’ll agree with the general consensus that it’s great when there’s at least some sort of illustration there. Most English publishers do seem to include at least the cover illustration, so at least it gives you something to look at on the spine. My handful of Japanese volumes seem to be about 50/50 for any sort of illustration on the spine, but I tend to buy weird and/or prestige format-type books in Japanese, so they’re not really reflective of the same stuff I buy in English.


  7. […] Hana!). My Year’s Best 2011 list awards a very prestigious award to Black Jack. And The Spinal Column, where I take a look at art on the spines of manga, has no less than three Tezuka series in it. […]

  8. Felneymike Says:

    HAH! Some guy said Genshiken was all the same, well now it’s been re-issued and every volume is a different colour… still boring designs though XD.
    There’s one publisher in Japan with a fairly standardised cover design of red text and a character illustration. They did one story about WW2 Zero pilots, which I saw in the Kyoto Manga Museum and want to track down a buy when I next go, I’ll recognise it by the drawings of guys in flying helmets on the spine XD.
    Oh and when I saw “there’s one publisher” that does that with shonen comics… NEARLY EVERY shoujo publisher seems to have done it for decades XD. There’s a Japanese book shop in London with an extensive manga section, the shoujo shelf is just endless Publisher logo – Red name – Girl face – Number XD.


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