Manga Moveable Feast: Viz Signature Imprint Top 10

April 13, 2012

Alas, I’m more than a week early, but today is the day I’m going to talk about the Manga Moveable Feast topic for this month. Hosted by Kate over at the Manga Critic, this month’s discussion focuses on the Viz Signature imprint.

Kate posted a helpful list at the link above, but there’s another over at the Viz website. Interestingly, I noticed that some of those titles are from the old Editor’s Choice imprint. Editor’s Choice was simply the precursor to Signature, but the theme of the imprints are probably about the same. They both encompass the most awesome manga titles you can find in English. Take it from someone who knows. I just now realized I own every manga title on that list except Biomega. I’m not sure what that says about me, but it does mean I know my way around the titles rather intimately. And I can say they really are that good.

So, what makes a Viz Signature book? In general, it seems like it’s simply the best of the best. In reality, it’s probably more like… titles that are not Shounen Sunday, Shounen Jump, or shoujo titles. But if Viz sees fit to license a title that does not fit into one of those three safe categories, chances are it’s worth reading. They tend to be for an older audience, seinen or josei-flavored, and somewhat more literary than your usual manga title. But not always! For every Phoenix, there’s a Detroit Metal City. Ooku is balanced out with Black Lagoon. All of them are well-written and entertaining, in their way, though some take more convincing than others. There’s also a lot of genres represented. Horror, action, romance, sci-fi, historical, high school, professionals, sports, music… if you like it, there’s probably a manga title for you in the Viz Signature imprint. And odds are, it’s actually going to be pretty great.

So let me talk about some of my favorites! I didn’t realize until I began writing the article how essential the Viz Signature line was to my reading habits, nor that I actually had all of them, so it turns out I’m fond of quite a few of them. So… how about a top ten of my favorites? Not the best ones, mind you, but my favorites. Keep in mind I sometimes like some pretty awful manga, and what I like isn’t always the best. But I do like all these to pieces, and I can vouch for the fact the Signature imprint has never printed an awful book, so all of these are at least worth some of your time.

10. Phoenix (Osamu Tezuka, 12 volumes) – As the life’s work of the God of Manga, it could be argued that Phoenix ranks somewhere at the top of the manga ranks. And it’s hard to disagree with that. Karma is the main theme through stories about wars real and imagined, cosmic time warp prisons, clone hunting, and thieves-turned-sculptors. The stories themselves are quite entertaining, varied, and mind-blowing cosmic. There’s nothing like reading a volume of Phoenix to make me feel bereft and insignificant. It can be a little heavy-handed with its themes, however, and while I can forgive it this, others might find it dense and complicated reading. But the stories themselves tend to be the kind of pulpy insanity that I love in manga.

9. Vagabond (Takehiko Inoue, 33+ volumes) – I usually don’t like historical manga, and I couldn’t tell you why I decided to pick this up. I’m glad I did, though, because Inoue takes the life of real-life sword guru Miyamoto Musashi and makes it into a very exciting story. A big part of this is his art, which uses a lot of thick, dynamic lines and heavy inks to bring the fights to life. The detailed natural settings are also one of the best things about it, and just as much a part of the story as the fighting. Inoue is also very good with his characters, making even the gruff and distant Musashi accessible to the reader. The fights are often utterly cosmic, and more compassionate than they are brutal. I like how each is carefully orchestrated on both sides and does more than exposition ever could to develop Musashi as a character. It’s a shame that Inoue is currently taking a break from this series, because I would love to read more about Musashi’s rival, the deaf and wordless swordsman Kojiro.

8. Gyo (Junji Ito, 2 volumes) – There’s something to be said about the power of image, and Gyo will always haunt my nightmares with bloated, rotting fish roaming the streets on mechanical legs. It’s been a long time since I read it, and many of the details are escaping me, but I do remember that the reason for the fish wandering around on legs was never really explained in a satisfactory way. That doesn’t matter, because at one point, a shark on legs tears a man apart in the street. Later, the rot and bloat from both fish and men make for an even bigger spectacle. Uzumaki is technically the better series, and even has a better gimmick, but Gyo is the one I will remember for the rest of my life. Plus, it’s got that short story about Amigara Fault that everyone likes.

7. Detroit Metal City (Kiminori Wakasugi, 10 volumes) – There truly is no stranger story about pursuing your dreams than Detroit Metal City. Negishi wants nothing more than to be a stylish pop star, but his strengths lie elsewhere. His repressed anger and tendency towards violence and crude behavior make him a perfect frontman for Detroit Metal City, an up-and-coming heavy metal band that reminds me a lot of Insane Clown Posse. While some might find this series in poor taste, others might find it in poor taste and quite hilarious. Concerts are rated on how… aroused the band’s manager gets. Negishi’s petty grudges turn into outlandish DMC songs about murdering 100 people every day of your life. Through it all, Negishi keeps chasing the pop star dream, and keeps failing at pop and excelling in metal. It’s horrible, profane, and lowbrow, but it’s also one of the funniest series I’ve ever read.

6. Tenjo Tenge (Oh! great, 22 volumes) – Ah, Tenjo Tenge. This is extremely polarizing. You either love it or you hate it. You can hate it for good reason. The early volumes are hard to get through, and are clearly pandering to an audience that Oh! great needs in order to be allowed to write the story he really wants. There is also an early scene with a brutal rape that is downplayed by all, and Aya Natsume isn’t exactly a good representative of her gender early on. Having said that, the best thing about Tenjo Tenge is that it takes a fairly boring plot about a school club full of brawlers and turns it into a kind of family saga that involves the distant past, the recent past, and the present. I followed the series when CMX released it years ago, and re-bought all the volumes in the Signature editions because I like this series so much. It doesn’t hurt that the omnibuses are really nice, too.

5. Golgo 13 (Takao Saito, 13 volumes) – I’m pretty sure it might be impossible for me to make a top ten list without putting Golgo 13 on it. While not in the Signature volumes, I just read a story where Duke Togo tracked a hit across a desert, then sniped him through a window by calculating where the victim’s head would be at the exact right time during the call to prayer, then ricocheting his bullet off the dome of a nearby mosque. Everything about this series is extreme, including Duke Togo himself. And the Signature volumes have pages and pages of end matter that bring a great deal of detail to the stories. Sometimes too much. I hope you wanted to see Golgo 13’s sex life in the form of a chart, mapped out by decade! I know I did!

4. 20th Century Boys (Naoki Urasawa, 24 volumes) – This is another strange one that’s hard to explain. It takes place in the past, present, and future simultaneously, and mixes children’s fantasy with a powerful worldwide political takeover by an entity called Friend. It will take too long to explain why this is great, but its power is in making all of its absurdity work. Can a story written by children become reality? Here, it can, and it works so very, very well. And, as the story goes on, another popular adolescent fantasy may be the answer to the world’s dictatorship problems. None of this sounds appealing, I know, but believe me when I say there’s nothing else quite like 20th Century Boys. I may have said that about more than one of the titles on this list, but it’s absolutely true. That’s the power of the Signature imprint.

3. Tekkon Kinkreet (Taiyo Matsumoto, 1 volume) – I bought this book only because the cover had such a happy, smiling face on it. I had no interest in the story, though many people kept talking about how good it was. Turns out, they were right. It is, once again, a bizarre story, and involves a slightly twisted town in a slightly fantasy-themed world, with some kids with slightly questionable powers. But the story of Shiro and Kuro is as touching as it is strange. I started this ready to hate it, but I read the entire 3-volume omnibus in one sitting. Plus, there are lots of good artists on this list (actually, I think over half the artists on this list are among the best I’ve seen), but Taiyo Matsumoto stands out even among them. He’s got a European flavor to his work that you don’t often see in manga.

2. Drifting Classroom (Kazuo Umezu, 11 volumes) – Here’s another one that defies description. An elementary school gets sucked into some sort of alternate dimension wasteland, and all hell breaks loose. The kids freak out, the teachers freak out, food is hoarded, floods happen, psychic contact is established with mothers, tools are dug out of mummies, chairs are mimicked, and every page is absolute children’s nightmare fuel. But unlike Gyo, the scares in Drifting Classroom are obviously the absurd concerns of children, both completely insane and utterly over-the-top. I dare you to sit down and read this in one sitting. It’s the best of what we have in English from horror manga’s eccentric uncle Kazuo Umezu, and it’s a shame it wasn’t more popular. I absolutely want more of whatever crazy is on display here.

1. Dorohedoro (Q Hayashida, 16+ volumes) – I bet you thought I would pick Ooku. While Ooku is very good, and Dorohedoro is probably not quite as good as even some of the other series on this list, it is my favorite of the Signature titles simply because there is no other comic like it anywhere in the world.

The story starts off with a purpose, but it is all but lost after a few volumes. Instead, the plot takes a backseat to the exploration of the wizard world. Both the art and story go all out to fully realize this world, and I’ve never read another comic that provides so much detail for such a unique place. Better still, the details aren’t delivered through long explanations. Character-centric stories are constantly introducing new and interesting things in passing, and the art rewards you for paying attention time and time again. It does all this with a kind of absurd writing style and a bit of irreverence. It’s technically a horror manga, and it is dark and violent, and the plot is going somewhere. But it’s also got a fascinating world, a great sense of humor, and isn’t afraid to take its time to expand on absolutely everything. A new volume of this comes out twice a year, and it isn’t nearly enough. I have a feeling I could read fifty volumes of this and never be tired of it.

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