Collect This Now! Cromartie High School

The slow, sad beak-up/implosion of ADV depressed me to no end, since it meant that two of my favorite manga series were going the way of the dodo, possibly never to be in print or completed again (yes, it is in fact all about me and my sense of entitlement).

Yen Press picked up the ball with one of those series, the charming Yotsuba, which I believe hits stores this week.

But there's another great manga that Yen or some other still thriving publisher would do well to get the North American publishing rights for. I'm speaking, of course, about Cromartie High School.

The manga, by Eiji Nonaka, centers, at least  in its initial volumes on the ever-optimistic Takashi Kamiyama, who, through a series of misunderstandings, ends up enrolling in Cromartie High School, the toughest school in town, and chock full of muscled thugs who would beat you senseless just for snoring too loud.

Just how tough are they? Tough enough not to eat just one, but an entire box full of pencils (remember to read right to left).

The comic is ostensibly a parody of the type of tough-guys-in-high-school shonen manga that are apparently rather popular (Slam Dunk features trace elements of this genre). But you don't have to be  familiar with what Cromartie is mocking to enjoy it. This is a deliciously absurd manga, similar in some ways to Michael Kupperman's Tales Designed to Thrizzle, though decidedly more deadpan.

Take for example, its ever-expanding cast of characters. Takashi is shunted aside rather quickly to make room for an even odder assortment of characters, including a mute Freddie Mercury lookalike, a gorilla, and a robot who seems to be unaware of his mechanical nature.

A lot of the humor in the series comes from the characters' utter obliviousness --like not realizing that Mechazawa is a robot, for instance. Nonaka will often play up the the situation by making it seem like one of the characters is about to have the light dawn on him only to say "you're shirt's unbuttoned" or something like that. (There's also always at least one character who's flummoxed by everyone's cluelessness, but never speaks up, perhaps out of fear of embarrassment.) It doesn't sound like much to hang a comic on, but Nonaka's deadpan style, plus his ability to tease out a punchline, make just about every joke sing, especially in the early volumes.

Cromartie is also a frequent exercise in frustration, as various students constantly find themselves upstaged by random events or their fellow students' afore-mentioned stupidity. Witness, this poor fellow, who only wants to let his friends know what to call him:

It's that kind of manga (and no, we never do discover his name).

When not being thwarted time and again, the Cromartie cast frequently engage in lengthy, roundabout, obtuse discussions, perhaps in order to avoid noticing whatever odd, surreal events may be taking place at the moment. Take the Four Great Ones, a quintet of tough guys who dress like members of KISS but spend their time sitting around a table arguing why they have five members.

I could go on, talking about the gang leader who secretly yearns to be a comedy writer or the thug who lives to post on Internet message boards, but I think you get the idea. This is a really funny manga that doesn't deserve to languish in unfinished obscurity. The sad thing is that ADV was getting very close to completing the series, having published 12 of the 17 volumes. Won't some kind, considerate publisher consider getting those few remaining books (and maybe perhaps a few other of Nonaka's works) out to the U.S manga-buying public? Pretty please?

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