One of my absolute favorite types of manga story are the ones that use heroes. It’s hard to use that as a category, as there are many different types of hero series. There’s the serious types that are one-man shows like Ultraman – Kikaider Code 02 by Shotaro Ishinomori and MD Geist by Koichi Ohata, for instance (these are called tokusatsu, which is technically an umbrella term, but it’s close enough). Sometimes the series try to be as much like an American superhero as possible, or actually are about one – Batman: Child of Dreams by Kia Asamiya, or Zetman by Masakasu Katsura (pictured above). Sometimes they come in the form of a man and his robot – The Big O by Hitoshi Ariga, or Heroman by our own Stan Lee. But for whatever reason, more often than not they are comedies that poke fun at the inherent ridiculousness of people in special outfits beating up outrageous monsters or other people in costumes. It’s really hard to make bad jokes about that, so these series are usually awesome. Unfortunately, they never do well in English, and not very many have been translated. Here are a few worth checking out, though.
Tiger & Bunny – Story by Sunrise, Art by Sakaibara Mizuki (3+ volumes)
In Stern Bild, heroes are true celebrities. Whenever a crime occurrs, a reality TV show is broadcast that tracks the criminals and the progress of all heroes as they try to stop the criminal. Heroes are assigned points based on their performance (points for showing up first, for making the arrest, et cetera), and the points leader is declared “King of Heroes” at the end of the year. Getting points is also important, as each superhero is sponsored, so if the hero isn’t getting enough points or screen time, they lose their corporate sponsorship and can no longer be a hero. This turns crime fighting into a spectacle, where each hero works to maximize their time (one character’s job is to simply show up in the background a lot), and uses the showiest method possible, rather than the best or fastest. Amid this cast, there is Kotetsu Kaburagi, aka Wild Tiger, an older and more experienced hero who is falling in ratings. He’s unwillingly teamed up with the handsome and very heroic newcomer, Barnaby Brooks Jr, who is the first hero to forego a secret identity. Both Barnaby and Kotetsu hate each other with a passion, but as the series continues, they begin to forge a great parnership with an entertaining old man/young man dynamic, and the plot turns away from the commercial satire and begins to focus more and more on the mystery surrounding the murder of Barnaby’s parents and potential corporate corruption. As an adaptation of an anime, it’s only okay (a handful of details are left out, and certain parts are rushed), and since I’ve seen the anime, I’m also disappointed that what I’ve read so far has been a very faithful adaptation with no flourishes. The art is quite good, however, with all the character and costume designs rendered faithfully along with dynamic action and good backgrounds (the artist was also one of the key animators). The first volume covered only the first two episodes, so I’m curious to see how long the series runs, if it continues to remain faithful to the anime, et cetera. This is a very current release from Viz, and thus should be fairly easy to find anywhere.
Heroes Are Extinct! – Story and Art by Ryoji Hido (3 volumes)
Cassiel is a general in charge of an invading army from another planet. However, when he reaches Earth, he discovers that invading would be child’s play. So instead, Cassiel goes to the surface in disguise and trains a group of five humans to be the Earth Defense Force. These five regular humans are actually just afraid of Cassiel, so they do as he says without question. For his part, Cassiel trains them in nothing more than how to wear their costumes and pose like heroes. When he stages invasion battles, he makes sure to lose in grand style to the Earth Defense Force. Surreal and bizarre, this series isn’t exactly good, but there’s nothing quite like it. It doesn’t make jokes so much as it revels in its own strangeness for three volumes. There’s a variety of characters, including Cassiel’s brother (who’s all about the fake hero battles that Cassiel stages), a man with a masklike two-tone face with no dialogue who’s only duty seems to be sneaking up behind people and tying ribbons in their hair (never adequately explained), and another who is always accompanied by a puffer fish. Towards the third volume, Cassiel is dragged into a political situation on his home planet. The fallout means that his Earth Defense Force needs to fight for real, and Cassiel needs to deliver an incredible, tear-worthy speech about how important heroes are. The fact that much of the characters’ behavior is never adequately explained, and that the strangeness never really goes away, may make this an off-putting read for many people. The art is also a little bland and simplistic. It was an extremely low-profile release, and I’ve only ever heard from a few other people who’ve read it. But I loved every page of it, and mentioned it everywhere I could for years. It was released in 2007, and is long out of print, but as I was the only fan, new copies are still available everywhere.
Ratman – Story and Art by Sekihiko Inui (4 volumes in English, 12 volumes total)
Shuto Katsuragi is a teen who grows up worshipping the ground that heroes walk on. There is nothing he wants more in the world than to be a hero. Unfortunately, he’s not very brave, and apparently too short to rock the look. One day, he gets his chance to be a hero, but he winds up being more of a villain, and along the way discovers his favorite and most heroic of the heroes is actually a huge jerk. When given the chance to continue to be an anti-hero (the titular Ratman), he decides to go for it. Ratman is supported by an evil organization that, in one of those twists, may be less evil than the corporation that backs the real heroes. And much like Tiger & Bunny and Booster Gold, heroes are sponsored by companies here. Ratman has its share of surreal humor on display as well, almost as much as Heroes Are Extinct, but with more plot and structure. For whatever reason, whenever Ratman appears, he’s supported by ill-explained skeleton men groupies referred to as “jackies.” Sometimes Shuto loses himself in Ratman, and the battles take a turn for the truly creepy and terrifying. There’s also some subplots with two different girls, one of whom is sister to Ratman’s creator and a true eccentric, the other of whom is the daughter of the head of the hero corporation and is friends with Shuto due to how much he loves the heroes. The art is fairly slick and dark, and works especially well when Ratman takes over Shuto. Sadly, Ratman was not completed before Tokyopop went out of business, so only four volumes came out in English. Volume 4 is experiencing some secondhand price creep, but all four volumes are worth a look if you’re at all interested in the genre.