This week, I thought I'd take a look at three great American pastimes, as reflected through the lens of manga. As someone who has never been near a sports venue and actively avoids the television when such programming is on, I was shocked at how addictive and well-done all three of these sports series were.
Baseball: Cross Game - Mitsuru Adachi (8 volumes)
Adachi is definitely the go-to artist for baseball manga, as he's had several long and popular series, and is a contemporary and comparable fame-wise to Inu-Yasha artist Rumiko Takahashi in Japan. Adachi has a similar minimal, rounded art style that's simple and easy on the eyes, but nothing remarkable in and of itself. His popularity comes from his soft touch with characters and gentle sense of humor. Cross Game is a shorter series, but contains all the things that make his work great. Ko was born on the same day as his neighbor Wakaba, and the two have been together since they were born. But tragedy separates them, and when Ko starts high school, Wakaba's younger sister Aoba gives Ko the kick in the pants he needs to fulfill Wakaba's dream - to see Ko pitch a game at the high school national baseball championships. The story continues as a ragtag team dethrones the elites at their school, meanwhile Ko and Aoba try to get close with the shadow of Wakaba between them. There is a lot of baseball, but it's more about the characters and capturing the charm of the average day. Adachi's minimal dialogue and expressive silence convey touching scenes in a way that few comics can. He also has a nice and clever way to throw over the over-confident bullies that pop up in series like this. It's fairly low-key, and its slice-of-life nature may turn it uninteresting in the eyes of many, but it really is a great series. Fun fact: I was this close to choosing the only other Adachi series in English for this column, as it features a short story about rugby. Short Program is a fantastic set of short stories, but it's old and difficult to find.
Football (American-style): Eyeshield 21 - Riichiro Inagaki (writer), Yusuke Murata (art) (37 volumes)
I wouldn't have gone anywhere near a football manga, but I'd heard so many good things about this series I had to try it out. Both the art and writing combine to make this a truly awesome page-turner. Murata is an ace when it comes to perspective and foreshortening shots, and he has a generally cartoony style that lends itself well to the madcap nature of the Devil Bats and the series in general. Inagaki is also criminally good at writing humor and good characters, and this series is supported largely by Hiruma, a secondary character, but captain of the Devil Bats. When the series starts, the team consists of only Hiruma and one other person. Hiruma sees that Sena, the main character, can run fast to escape bullies, and decides to put together a football team based on that strength. Hiruma does so by using a "threat book," which seems to have blackmail material on every person that attends and works at the school. He also uses assault rifles and a mean dog. While the series is mostly about Sena learning about football, Hiruma is the real star. He's the quarterback, and the absolute best tactician. They don't play "real" football, and Deimon wins most of their early games through tricks, scams, plans, and blackmail courtesy of Hiruma. Slowly, the players that Hiruma bullies into playing begin to genuinely enjoy the sport and become more skilled, so the games get more serious and longer as the series goes on. But Inagaki has a flair for joke characters on opposing teams (like Gao of the Dinosaurs, who is a tough bruiser known for causing injuries, or a member of the Poseidons who is tall and pulls of a trident maneuver), and Murata has a flair for drawing them, so the series never loses its humorous edge. While the English translation finished up late in 2011, it did start its lengthy run in 2005. I don't like to talk about old series on here, because manga series have a tendency to experience secondhand price creep on random volumes. For instance, volumes 5, 6, and 7 are $20, $50, and $4 used at the moment, for some reason. These prices fluctuate though, and if you keep an eye out, you can usually get them fairly cheap.
Basketball: Real - Takehiko Inoue (11+ volumes)
I'm cheating this one a little bit, since I've already covered Inoue's superb Slam Dunk. Real has less to do with basketball than Slam Dunk and more to do with its characters - which is to its benefit. What's more, Real is more about wheelchair basketball than it is regular basketball. I actively avoided this series for years, until I was sent a review copy and needed to cover it for another website. I immediately regretted my actions, as Real is probably the best series by Inoue, and he's penned some very good work. The plot covers three characters. Nomiya is a bit of a screw-up punk, his only skill being that he's an ace on the basketball court. But one day, he wrecks his motorcycle with his girlfriend on the back. He escapes with only a deep cut on his arm, but his girlfriend will never walk again. He drops out of school and finds he can do nothing to atone for his girlfriend's loss, and he begins an aimless life, bouncing from job to job. He quickly meets Kiyoharu, a young man who has some of the best moves Nomiya has ever seen on the basketball court, all performed from a wheelchair. Becoming friends with Kiyoharu slowly convinces Nomiya to get serious about basketball and possibly go pro. Kiyoharu was a nationally ranked runner until his leg was amputated, and during the course of Real, he develops a serious interest in wheelchair basketball into a professional career. The third main character is a young man named Takahashi, a cocky star on the same high school basketball team as Nomiya until he is hit by a truck and is paralyzed from the waist down. Takahashi's story is the most depressing of all, and Takahashi is in a terrible and self-destructive place for many volumes. As you can see, it's more about three characters interested in basketball than it is about the sport itself, but it runs the range of emotion from dark to inspirational, and it's got superb artwork. Don't let the wheelchair basketball theme scare you off, it really is a triumphant and addictive little series.