2011 was a good year for manga, with some solid shonen and shoujo series making their debut alongside more literary manga aimed at older readers. Here's my hand-picked list of the best manga of 2011, all series that launched either this year or in late 2010.
Gate 7 has its flaws, no doubt about it—the story takes a while to get moving, and it's not at all clear what's going on at first. The setup—a student who stumbles into a magical realm and turns out to have the greatest powers of all—is not new. What saves it is CLAMP's graceful art and an intriguing storyline that weaves together past and present, all set in the historic district of old Kyoto. (Extensive endnotes help explain the many historical allusions.) By the end of the first volume, CLAMP has brought the ghosts of the past to life and launched an ambitious story.
The Drops of God
By Tadashi Agi and Shu Okimoto
The Drops of God is the story of a high-stakes wine tasting competition. Shizuku, the rebellious son of a famous wine critic, turned his back on his legacy and has never tasted wine. His father dies, leaving one of those mischievous bequests that probably wouldn't stand up in court: Shizuku will inherit his valuable collection of rare wines only if he can correctly identify 12 renowned wines. Upping both the suspense and the bishie count is the snooty Issei, a trained wine-taster who competes against Shizuku for the prize. Cleanly drawn and always informative, Drops of God is a bit heavy on the exposition but an interesting read nonetheless.
By Natsume Ando
Natsume Ando, the creator of Kitchen Princess, really knows how to whip up a shoujo manga, and Arisa has all the right ingredients: Twin sisters (one sweet, one tart), an assortment of boys (gentle, rebellious, treacherous), and a mystery. The twins were raised apart and they couldn’t be more different: Tsubasa is a straight-shooting high schooler who says what she thinks and often follows that up with her fists or a good kick, while Arisa is sweetness personified. Tsubasa envies her sister's apparently perfect life, right until Arisa jumps out a window and winds up in a coma. Trying to figure out what drove Arisa to despair, Tsubasa takes her place and soon learns that her fellow students are being manipulated by a shadowy figure called The King, who grants the wishes they text him from their cell phones. Ando keeps the twists coming, so the story is constantly changing. You won't want to put this one down.
A Bride's Story
By Kaoru Mori
Kaoru Mori specializes in creating a world—or rather, re-creating a world of the past, in great detail. Her manga Emma was set in Victorian England; while A Bride's Story takes place in 19th-century Asia in a village along the Silk Road. Her art is beautiful, filled with rich detail and graceful motion, but the story is a bit slow at first. The heroine, Amir, is a 20-year-old woman who is sent to another village to marry a 12-year-old boy, and the first volume is mainly the story of Amir settling in to her new home and getting to know her husband's family. Toward the end, the conflict appears—the men of Amir's former tribe appear and want her back, and intrigue and action enter the story. Beautifully drawn and full of quiet moments as well as exhilarating action, A Bride's Story is a masterpiece.
7 Billion Needles
By Nobuake Tadano
It's hard not to feel sympathy for the alien being that inhabits the body of Hikaru Takabe: Tasked with stopping Maelstrom, a monster that threatens all life on earth, he must work with a teenage girl who cuts off the outside world with headphones and balks at all his commands. Based on a story by American writer Hal Clement, 7 Billion Needles is hard science fiction set in a Japanese high school, so Hikaru must deal with both monsters from space and the usual hardships of adolescence. Tadano's art is well suited to the genre, and his detailed drawings of cluttered interiors set this book apart from the generic art of most high school manga.
By Mitsuru Adachi
Cross Game is a sweet manga about friendship and baseball. There's a plot that winds through it—the relationship between Ko Kitamura, whose family runs a sports supply store, and four sisters whose family owns a batting center and coffee shop—but what makes this manga special is Adachi's storytelling style and the way he brings the reader into the story by interspersing quiet moments amid the action. Cross Game is not so much a sports manga as a slice-of-life manga with sports as part of the lives being depicted; there's a lot of story here, and it is beautifully told.
By Naoko Takeuchi
Sailor Moon won't win any literary awards, but it's very good at what it does. The plot may be illogical at times, the art chaotic, and the characters rather thin, but it all adds up to a great magical-girl story that continues to captivate fans all over the world. That alone earns it a place on this list, and Kodansha's new edition, flipped and in standard manga format, is a real treat for new and old fans alike.
Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths
By Shigeru Mizuki
This is not a fun manga to read, but it is an important one. Shigeru Mizuki was in a Japanese infantry unit during World War II, and he drew on his own experiences in this story of enlisted men who are mistreated by their superiors and ultimately ordered to go on a suicide charge in order to avoid the dishonor of surviving. Mizuki depicts the brutality of ordinary life behind the battle lines as well as the violence of war, and this is not an easy story to read, but its historical importance and the lessons it holds for the future are undeniable.
By Natsume Ono
This jewel of a book contains 14 short stories by Ono, dating from 1995 to 2005. Not surprisingly, the newer stories show a greater degree of polish and skill, and it is interesting to see Ono's unusual style evolve over the years. All the stories deal with relationships between families and friends (except the first one, which is a cute little story of a bear buying a donut), and Ono is a master at capturing those small moments on which everything else pivots. Printed in chocolate-brown ink on cream-colored paper, with a faux-parchment cover, this book is a jewel, just as the name (Italian for "treasure") implies.
By Takako Shimura
Wandering Son is a delightful, quiet manga about a girly boy and a boyish girl. People often mistake fifth-grader Shuichi for a girl, while his classmate Yoshino is a classic tomboy. When someone gives Yoshino a dress, she wants nothing to do with it—but Shuichi dreams about it at night. Yoshino is more assertive, and she actually makes trips to another city dressed as a boy. This is not your typical gender-bender manga playing a gender switch for laughs (and fanservice); it's a quiet, subtle story of a boy coming to terms with himself.