In the US, there’s been a recent surge in teen fiction – novels that are written specifically for and about a teenage audience. Fifteen years ago, it didn’t exist, but now it’s one of the hottest-selling categories of literature. While there are several mainstream hits, browsing the section at any bookstore will tell you that most of these titles are aimed at teenage girls. They feature more complex emotional themes, characters that one can easily relate to, and are (debateably) only a step removed from adult literature. And the category covers a variety of genres, as well. A similar thing happened to manga for girls in the 1970s. A group of female artists, who themselves grew up on the popular manga series for young girls, decided that there should be manga for a slightly older female audience as well. The name “Year 24 Group” refers to the fact that many of the artists were born in 1949, or Showa Year 24. A lot of the series written during this time period by these artists remains classic to this day, but criminally little of it has been translated into English. This week, I’m going to feature 3 very different series by 3 Year 24 Group artists that are available in English. And honestly, there’s not a whole lot more than this.
Heart of Thomas – Moto Hagio (1 volume)
The series opens with a young boy named Thomas killing himself. He leaves a letter to upperclassman Juli, stating his love openly. Juli is hurt and confused initially, and tries to put the incident and the letter out of his mind. The story unfolds slowly, about how Thomas was a constant hanger-on to the upperclassman, and when a new transfer student comes to the school that looks exactly like Thomas, Juli begins to explore his feelings more thoroughly, rather than glossing over or denying them. It’s difficult to explain the charm of Heart of Thomas in a brief paragraph. It takes place at an all-boys boarding school in Germany, and was one of the first stories about a gay relationship between males written for girls (as unlikely as it sounds, this is a very popular genre). Full of drama, angst, and some surprisingly dark twists, Heart of Thomas unfolds like a hand-wringing mystery that explores the circumstances surrounding Thomas’s death and the reactions of Juli and everyone around him. It’s a beautiful story, and Hagio’s art is unparalleled. She has delicate, feathery linework and a flair for the dramatic, teary faces, uses repetition for emotional impact, and is just a fantastic artist in general. This is probably Hagio’s most famous work, and we were very fortunate to have finally received an English translation at the beginning of this year. The one-volume Fantagraphics omnibus should be readily available anywhere.
To Terra… – Keiko Takemiya (3 volumes)
Vertical released two sci-fi series from Takemiya. I prefer the eerie and strange Andromeda Stories, but To Terra… is the more famous. In the future, Earth has been polluted to the point of being uninhabitable, and humanity has long since colonized other planets. All are governed by a supercomputer, which mandates that humans recieve a brainwashing and a memory wipe at age 14. The supercomputer also hates a psychic mutation that occurs in beings called Mu, and any trace of the Mu genes results in termination. Jomy, the main character, fails his adult exam at age 14, but is rescued by the Mu resistance, who dream of one day going back to Earth and escaping the wrath of the supercomputer and the soldiers it controls. Jomy winds up being among the strongest of the psychic warrior Mu, and eventually takes over the leadership of the Mu and their difficult journey back to Earth. It’s a suprisingly emotional and tear-stained ride as Jomy has everything he’s known completely taken away and must eke out a living running from the government with the Mu. At three volumes, it’s a pretty tight and action-packed story, though admittedly emotionally overwrought at times. It’s also a rather rare instance of hard sci-fi manga in English. Takemiya is better known for The Song of the Wind and Trees, which will likely never see an official English translation, so I was surprised to see that she wrote in the sci-fi genre as well. It didn’t seem like a good fit for the girly type of stories I was expecting from the Year 24 Group, but it works quite well. Her art is a lot like Moto Hagio’s, with similar linework, character designs, and teary teenage boy faces, but she also draws good space panoramas and machine interiors. This came out several years ago, but I believe it did not sell well at all. All three volumes are still in print and available.
From Eroica With Love – Yasuko Aoike (39+ volumes in Japan, 15 in English)
The third series, one of the longest girls’ manga in Japan, is a send-up of James Bond and the spy genre. I won’t lie, From Eroica With Love is one of my top three favorite series of all time, and I may feature it by itself later. It’s probably the funniest manga series I’ve read, and I have a great deal of respect for jokes that can stay funny through 35 years and a cultural translation. It works so well primarily because Aoike has written two very good contrasting personalities in Earl Dorian Red Gloria and Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach. The flamboyant and fabulous Earl gets his kicks as the international art thief Eroica, and whenever he sees something that catches his eye, he successfully steals it. Major Eberbach, a by-the-book and tightly wound soldier, is a member of NATO who is constantly hunting communist spies around the globe, and as unlikely as it sounds, the two often run into each other, and, even more incredibly, are often after the same thing. The humor comes from the fact that they hate each other’s guts, but are fairly equally matched in terms of one-upping and outsmarting each other in the most elaborate and humiliating ways possible. The English translation is fantastic, and captures their banter perfectly. There’s no ongoing plot, and the story arcs (usually several volumes long) are an interesting mix of artifacts in different places around the world. England, Alaska, Italy, Egypt, and more are all covered in the volumes translated into English. Sometimes the Earl and Major are forced to work together, in one notable instance Eroica is hired by NATO in order to crack the safe at the Vatican. He exploits the Major’s hospitality for all it’s worth, and things that happen in Italy include accidentally digging a tunnel into a woman’s bathroom, laying graffiti in St. Peter’s Square as a decoy and, in one of my favorite scenes in the whole series, a wonderful flourish where Eroica reveals that he’s stolen a sleeping Pope. Aoike’s early art is also fantastic, with lots of flowing 70s locks, long legs, plenty of attention to detail in the well-researched backgrounds and locations, and a bizarre sense of fashion. Unfortunately, later volumes are not as pretty, but the English translation stops before things start getting simpler. There are some caveats, primary among them the fact that the first volume has little to do with the rest of the series, and is frankly awful (the first chapter is about psychic teens who are facing the Earl as an enemy, but the Earl was the better character, so they disappear by the end of the volume). Also unfortunate is the fact that sometimes the characters make gay jokes that fall flat. There are only one or two truly offensive instances in the 15 English volumes, which is surprisingly few given the nature of some of Aoike’s earlier work. The English translation stopped when CMX was closed, but it ends in a good place. The English volumes are almost all in the $20-$30 range, but if you’re into the funny spy spoof, it’s worth it.