The Eisner Award nominations are always a good reading list, especially if you're looking for something a little bit different. The manga that get nominated each year tend to be more literary than popular, especially in the traditional manga category, Best U.S. Edition of International Material—Asia. The Eisner judges have yet to nominate "Naruto" or "Sailor Moon" for the award; as a judge myself last year, I advocated for The Story of Saiunkoku to be included in the Young Adult category, but there were so many other good teen books that it didn't make the final cut.
This year's nominations include five manga titles. Four are in the Best International Material category (which is rounded out by "A Chinese Life," by Li Kunwu and P. Ôtié, which actually appears to be French). The fifth is vol. 2 of Katsuya Terada's "The Monkey King," which got a nomination for Best Painter/Multimedia Artist (Interior Art).
My pick would be Mari Yamazaki's "Thermae Romae," which Yen Press has published in a deluxe oversized format. Drawn in a style more reminiscent of classical engravings than your typical manga, it is the story of an architect in ancient Rome who designs baths. He gets mysteriously transported to the present day, where he experiences modern bath technology—and then goes back to his own time and tries to re-create it using what he has on hand. It's an extraordinarily clever manga, well drawn and quite funny in places, and embarrassing as it is to admit this, it's fascinating to see the details of Japanese bathrooms and bathing habits.
You really can't go wrong with Naoki Urasawa's "20th Century Boys," which for my money is the best series in English right now. Why not make it my top pick, then? Two reasons: It already won the Eisner in 2011 (although judges aren't supposed to take that into consideration), and by last year the series was almost finished, so it's hard to judge the series based solely on that year's volumes. That's why my group of judges last year nominated the book not only in the manga category but also for Best Continuing Series. It's certainly worth checking out; Urasawa is a great storyteller, and the story in this series—about a group of young adults trying to stop a cult leader whose plan for world domination is based on their childhood games—is filled with thrills and twists.
Shigeru Mizuki won last year's manga Eisner for his bitter tale "Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths," the story of a doomed Japanese army unit at the end of World War II, based partly on his own experiences. "Nonnonba" is a very different book, in which Mizuki draws on his childhood memories to tell the tale of a young boy and his grandmother, who sees and speaks to the yokai (Japanese spirits). It's a delightful blend of everyday life and the supernatural, all told with Mizuki's signature, somewhat cartoony style.
Finally, it's not the Eisners if there isn't an Osamu Tezuka manga, and this year's entry is his "Barbara," published by Digital Manga, Inc. The tale of a writer obsessed with the woman he comes to regard as his muse, Barbara is one of those books that walks the line between obsession and madness. Digital funded this translated edition with a Kickstarter drive.
I haven't read "The Monkey King," but here's the blurb:
A rare example of a manga painted entirely in full color, The Monkey King is the epic of Goku, a savage ape once imprisoned by Lord Buddha himself, but now freed by the monk Sanzo to serve as his bodyguard on a journey to the West . . . across a wasteland filled with weird, violent, and sexy demons!
Katsuda's art is striking, although this manga may not be to everyone's taste.
So that's the list, and it's a hard one to top; although manga publishing is still down compared to previous years, 2012 saw some strong debuts, and each of the manga on this list is a satisfying read in its own right, even if none of them features magical girls. There's always next year...