The romantic comedy genre is one that's plagued with stereotypes, both on the male and female side. Admittedly, the genres do everything they can to conjure and keep those stereotypes in place, and it's not often you hear of a series in this genre that trailblazes. But they can still be satisfying reads, and if the characters are good, sometimes that's all I need to keep coming back. I find it interesting that this genre exists for both men/boys and women/girls, and that the series are very different beasts depending on who their aimed at (also, that there's not really an equivalent for the male-type story in English, possibly because English-speaking audiences are less inclined to portray the dirty minds of teenage boys, which makes love stories for that age group more appealing for girls). There's all sorts of commentary that can be offered on the subject of gender differences in the genre, but unfortunately it's outside the scope of this column. The earnest quality and slightly naughty nature of the male-themed romantic comedy is the subject for tonight. I've got one classic, one pillar of the genre, and one terrible imitator for you today.
Oh My Goddess! - Story and Art by Kosuke Fujishima (46+ volumes)
This is the only one I'm looking at today targeted specifically at men. It's run in Afternoon magazine every month since September of 1988, and has been serialized in English in some form or other since August of 1994 (it's the longest-running manga in English). This is a good example of the fact that demographic is determined more by the magazine the comic is serialized in rather than the content of the series - often these go hand in hand, and Afternoon does have its share of tame romantic comedies mixed in with Eden: It's an Endless World! and Parasyte, but the only indication that Oh My Goddess might be for a slightly older audience is the fact that the main character is in college. Everything else about it aligns with what you might find in a series aimed at teens. Shy and short Keiichi Morisato is house-sitting for some upperclassmen one night when he mis-dials while ordering pizza. Instead of take-out, he hears a female voice offer to grant him one wish, anything he desires. Thinking it's a joke, Keiichi says he wants a woman such as the speaker to stay with him always. The speaker complies, and Belldandy, a goddess first class, appears in the room with him. True to her promise, she stays with him always. From there, the series goes on to be mostly one-shot stories about Keiichi and Belldandy's life. They are soon joined by Belldandy's older and younger sisters, Urd and Skuld, both goddesses, and both with their own personalities and different types of magic. The stories are sometimes slice-of-life stories about the characters enjoying life, sometimes they're about racing (Keiichi is studying engineering and goes on to be a mechanic, and motorsports figure prominently in his hobbies), sometimes they're about little incidents caused by stray magic from one of the goddesses, sometimes they're about family, sometimes about side characters, and very occasionally, they're big magic epics about the goddesses using their power (the most recent story arc in English was the longest one of those ever, clocking in at about 6 volumes, which is longer than any other story arc by at least 4 volumes). As far as romance goes, Oh My Goddess specializes in "warm and fuzzy feeling" more than "romantic." Keiichi and Belldandy live together because they have to, due to the nature of Keiichi's wish. But whenever they get a moment alone, the joke is that it's spoiled by one of Belldandy's sisters. For the longest time, this "moment alone" was simply hand-holding, or a private conversation. At 40 volumes in, Belldandy and Keiichi have kissed maybe twice. But they still make for a good, solid couple, and sexual innuendo doesn't really have a place in their relationship (and, mercifully, there are few jokes on the subject, unlike every other romcom manga). It's a series that's a little funny, sometimes a little exciting, and always cute, and it's the closest thing I've ever come to a sitcom in manga form. Fujishima's art is also quite nice to look at and has become very polished over the years. His character designs and sense of fashion are wonderful, and he draws nice backgrounds. It's difficult to convince new readers to come aboard, since it really is 40 volumes of very mild stories that depend a great deal on how much you like the characters. But I've been reading it for 13 years, and I still enjoy every volume. Because there's no overarching plot (though time does pass slowly), it's not a good series to marathon, but it's a great series to read at the current rate of release (2-4 volumes a year), or to come back to after a break. It doesn't try hard to gain readers outside those who might enjoy this type of story, but if it's your thing, it's definitely worth checking out. Early volumes are somewhat more outrageous and slightly more fanservice-y than the latter parts, though it's hard to recommend a better place to start. All volumes should be in print and available, and the series was recently reprinted in a cheaper, manga-size format.
I"s - Story and Art by Masakazu Katsura (15 volumes)
If you said you wanted to read a romantic comedy manga very badly, but didn't know where to start, I would hand you the first volume of I"s. Katsura had a dry run at the genre on the popular, but sci-fi themed and slightly more dramatic Video Girl Ai before starting I"s. I"s is a simple story about a boy named Ichitaka and a girl named Iori, and the crush the former harbors for the latter. There's a third "I", named Itsuki, at the beginning of the series that forms a romantic triangle with her crush on Ichitaka, but she's phased out fairly early on. Later, there are other "I"s that become romantically involved, but it's all the same thing. And that's about it. Except it's not, and it has all the most perfect things you could hope for in the romantic comedy genre. All of them. And they may be tired, but I"s does them better than any other series, and part of the reason is that the characters seem to enjoy themselves way more than they should (usually male-themed romcom characters feel guilty and shy about their crushes). The other part may just be that Katsura clearly loves indulging the readers in more... artful ways than the genre deserves. Iori, Ichitaka, and their friends endlessly do things that teenagers do. Go out on trips. Go to parties. Talk endlessly about their crushes to one another, only to have something slip and be misunderstood. People move away, new people move in. It's a perfect picture of high school life, and Katsura writes it well. I"s is slightly more exploitative than Oh My Goddess... and when I say slight, I mean A LOT. Katsura is at his absolute best when drawing a panty shot or a female derriere, but he draws them like a Dutch Master. Unlike most romcom manga, where tripping and falling or a gust of wind or a thousand other things might trigger an unsubtle panty shot with boring character reactions, Katsura uses subtle methods. Shots are naturally framed up with butts in the foreground. Panties peek naturally with no comment most of the time. It's amazing how simultaneously restrained and over-the-top it is. He's also an excellent artist, with very realistic faces (though not easily discernible from one another) and a lot of detail that you would be shocked to see in something serialized weekly. I"s ran in Weekly Shounen Jump, incredibly, along with the likes of One Piece, Yu-Gi-Oh, Rurouni Kenshin, and Hikaru no Go. Also, Katsura's sense of humor pervades I"s. At one point, one of the female characters nearly gets in trouble for posing nude for an artist before it's revealed she's wearing a body suit that only makes her look naked. Parties include games of Kings (where the king gets to tell everyone else what to do), and hilariously, for the climax of the series, Twister. Twister is a master stroke. For volumes and volumes, Ichitaka will make up his mind to tell Iori how he feels, and then will do so. Then we find out that his confessions are dreams. Or an elaborate fantasies. Or a friend telling Ichitaka how such a scene ought to play out. When it actually does happen, I had to re-read it 3 times to make sure there was no joke. Late in the series, Ichitaka meets new neighbor Aiko. Aiko goes along with the naming convention of everyone in the main romantic triangle being an I (Ai is pronounced the same way you would say the letter), and she also looks exactly like Iori. While not actually a joke, this is very funny, but it's difficult to explain how or why without context. There's also a best friend character named Teratani, who is exactly what a best friend for a teenage boy ought to be. He offers Ichitaka real support, but is also all about him getting heavily romantically involved with the female characters. This sounds terrible and exploitative, but it also feels realistic, and like something a teenage boy would be interested in, of course. I'm describing its humor and over-the-top nature, but I"s is very sincere as well. It has a lot of sexual innuendo, but it feels like something a teenage boy would be into, along with having an earnest crush on a girl. Unlike the forced fanservice and uninteresting characters in other series, I"s does a good job of making both realistic. The downside of I"s is that, again, it doesn't try very hard to gain readers outside of people that want to read it. It's also repetitive by nature, as Ichitaka does go in circles about whether or not to date Iori, then they break up and fall in love a few more times through the end of the series. But overall, it's an awesome snapshot of teenage life, and the best one of these there is. I"s has been finished for about five years, but it was never popular. Most volumes are still available new, and the couple early volumes that are unavailable can be had for a penny.
Pastel - Story and Art by Toshihiko Kobayashi (32+ volumes, 14 in English)
Mugi lives on a sparsely-populated island, and at the beginning of the series, is heartbroken when his longtime girlfriend moves away. But a job offer from his best friend has him running into a mysterious new girl named Yuu. Their first embarrassing encounter (involving a changing scene) is compounded when his friend Kazuki sets him up on a blind date with her. Later, it's revealed that Mugi and Yuu's fathers were best friends, and Mugi's father agrees to let Yuu and her sister move in with them when he hears of the other man's death. And so the manga begins, with much hijinx ensuing from Mugi hosting Yuu, who he kinda likes, and living with her and her nosy sister on a day-to-day basis. He doesn't want to admit his feelings to her since that would make their living situation awkward, and Yuu doesn't have any place else to go. Pastel has its sweet moments, and I was very caught up in the first several volumes, but I mention it here because it's like a combination of Oh My Goddess and I"s, but without the skill and charm. Oh My Goddess makes the home situation comfortable and natural, whereas in Pastel it's a reason for awkwardness, many aborted attempts at alone time, and more scenes of Mugi accidentally walking in on Yuu changing and her getting mad at him than I can count. It's also repetitive, and does a lot of the same things as I"s, but it feels more like it's simply going through the motions. Part of the reason was that Yuu never really feels accessible, and Mugi's reasons for not dating her are good ones (it's true she wouldn't have any place else to live). Yuu also gets inexplicably jealous whenever another girl shows interest in Mugi, but is never obviously interested herself, which is an aggravating plotline to repeat over and over again. Mugi also has a lot less personality than Keiichi or Ichitaka, which is saying something. Most romcom heroes are doormat-ish so that it's easy for shy male readers to relate, but Mugi does little that's unexpected. And the fanservice is less subtle and more pervasive than even I"s. In volume 11, Mugi gets a new mom, who has enormous breasts. On the first page of the volume, mom and Yuu are weighing their breasts on a scale. In the first two stories with the mom in them, there are 93 pages total, 66 of which focus heavily on breasts, and frequently have a "boing!" speech bubble coming out of them. There are cute and touching moments in Pastel, and it is a love story, but the good is quickly buried in some awful stuff that's difficult to slog through. Perhaps it gets better, as I was shocked to read that it's been running for over 10 years. I can't even imagine reading 32 volumes of this, and I bought all 14 when they came out. Pastel was a casuality of one of the Del Rey manga reorganizations, and while several good series were lost, I was relieved that Pastel stopped where it did in English. This series has been out-of-print since 2009, but was also never very popular, so most volumes can be had for a penny. Mysteriously, volume 14 has some manga price creep, but it's unlikely there are many looking for it.