Sometimes, it’s good to look at a topic that is only a topic by happenstance. These series have nothing in common aside from the fact they share names with locations. Often, they have nothing to do with those places. That doesn’t make them any less fun to read.
Enjoy the cover of Animerica Extra, one of the handful of dead English manga anthologies. Animerica Extra was always my favorite. None of the others ever had Yumi Tamura covers.
Chicago – Story and Art by Yumi Tamura (2 volumes)
Yumi Tamura stands out among other manga artists because, even in the category of ornate comics written for girls, her art is superb and strikingly different. She uses heavy screentones, puts a lot of work into clothing and costume design (especially in her fantasy series Basara), and is quite good at drawing distinctive-looking characters. There’s nobody else that draws quite like her, which is rare indeed. Basara is her most famous series, a sprawling fantasy epic about warring kingdoms with a metric ton of characters that she manages to make sympathetic, interesting, and memorable. It’s well worth reading, though difficult to track down all the volumes of. Chicago is the work she drew just after, and it’s about as far away from Basara as you can get. It’s a contemporary drama/thriller, with a pair of mercenaries who were caught in the middle of some bad business while working on a rescue squad and saving earthquake victims some years ago. They discover the victims were shot to death, and a bombing on the island wipes all trace of the rescue squad from the books. Rei and Uozumi, the two main characters survive, though Uozumi does so without one of his leg. Years later, the two are recruited as part of a team that seeks to uncover the secret of Bay District D. Present short stories are mixed in with stories of their past, all are ridiculously action-packed, and everything leads up to the big reveal at the end of the second volume. Some of the issues are left unresolved at the end, but it does feel finished. The action scenes are over-the-top, but very well-done. The best example I can offer you is the scene where Uozumi breaks out of prison. He habitually plays his cello, and one day, when the guards walk off, he puts on a recording of cello music, then uses his string as a saw to get out of his cell and gain access to the sewer system. He is pursued, and runs through the large sewer pipes on one leg, until he’s cornered at a precipitous drop. The guards are confident they’ve captured him, until he takes the plunge from the pipe into the abyss. At just the right moment, Rei pops out of a pipe system further down and vaults the drop on her motorcycle, timed perfectly so that Uozumi lands on it mid-air and she lands in the pipe on the other side of the drop and rides off. Every story is pretty much like that, which is what makes this series absolutely worth owning. The series has nothing to do with Chicago, and is actually named for a bar that the character gather at. Both volumes are long out-of-print, but the series isn’t in demand, so both can be obtained quite easily.
Japan – Story by Buronson, Art by Kentaro Miura (1 volume)
This volume is pretty fantastic right off the bat, as Buronson (Fist of the North Star) and Kentaro Miura (Berserk) were meant to work together. The story itself is as bizarre and post-apocalyptic as you might imagine. The main characters are warped into a future Japan, where society has fallen due to the excesses of the present. The survivors in Japan are combating European invaders who are trying to exploit the poor in Japan for financial gains. The residents of Japan, led by a very Guts-looking Yakuza main character warped from the present, have to band together to drive the European invaders out and create a new Japan, free from foreign influences. Admittedly, I haven’t read this one, and I regret it terribly. It is outrageously, hilariously nationalistic and patriotic. The action scenes and over-the-top nature of post-apocalyptic Japan are reminiscent of Fist of the North Star, while the art is full of the detail that Kentaro Miura puts in everything. Admittedly, Miura grows incredibly as an artist over the years, and this is an earlier work. It doesn’t look nearly as nice as most of Berserk, and his artwork is somewhat wasted on this subject matter, as he’s quite good at drawing monsters. His enormous muscled bad guys fit right into the Buronson story, though. Japan is also out of print, but cheap and easy to find.
Mars – Story and Art by Fuyumi Soryo (15 volumes)
I cheated with this one. Mars is a real place, but not in the sense of the other two. And technically, this isn’t named after the planet, but the god. It’s a type I cover very rarely in these articles, the teen romance genre, but this is one of the best. Soryo is truly a master at writing good, convincing characters, and the nuances of conversation and silence both are used to great effect. She also has delicate, spare artwork that really helps build mood as well. Kira is a shy, introverted art student without many friends. One day, she is approached in the park by the very outgoing Rei, a popular but reckless student at the same school. He asks her for directions, and she draws a map for him on the back of a sketchbook page. He saves the sketch and can’t stop thinking about it, so he seeks her out in the artroom after school one day. Kira completely breaks character and asks Rei to model for her, and the two begin a relationship that transitions slowly into friendship, then romance. It sounds cliched, and it is, and the storylines can be even worse. Through the course of 15 volumes, Mars does run in circles a bit, and the drama can get a little out of hand. But Soryo is an excellent writer, and the series has an addictive quality. The great characters carry the story, and while the plots can be a little silly and overbearing at times (dead twins, evil stepfathers, estranged wealthy family members, psychopathic hangers-on, et cetera), it’s a compelling read since you grow to like the characters so much. I read the second half in one sitting. It’s not something I would recommend to anybody not interested in reading a soap opera, but as far as high school drama goes, there are few that are as classy as Mars. The name comes from an early scene where Rei kisses a bust of Mars in the art room, and later Kira paints a portrait of him as Mars. It’s a Tokyopop series, and one of the first published in their “100% Authentic Manga” format, which makes it over 10 years old (a depressing thought) and long out-of-print. At 15 volumes, it’s difficult to track down used copies unless you can find a lot on eBay, and individual volumes can climb in price.