I remember the first time I ever came in contact with manga: I was thirteen, and a girl on my bus route shoved a copy of Death Note in my face. She desperately needed someone to talk to about it, like the story was a secret she couldn’t bear keeping any longer. I read it and got hooked immediately, asking her for the other 5 volumes the very next day. For the next month, I lived/ate/breathed Death Note. We annoyed every other student on the bus with our annoying chatter, fangirling over Light and L and arguing about which shinigami is the coolest. This sensation is why I find myself returning to some of my favorite manga, even as I get older. For me it’s about the feeling of being swept up into a fantasy world, obsessing over the minutiae, and losing myself in the work. These are my all-time favorite manga series, the ones I can’t imagine myself living without.
4: Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service
I’m a gigantic sucker for anything that manages to blend morbid and lighthearted themes in a successful way, and Eiji Otsuka’s The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service does just that. The employees of the eponymous Delivery Service are all recent graduates of a Buddhist college near Tokyo, all left without job prospects because of their useless degrees. All possessing spiritual powers of some degree, the group of friends decides to go into business carrying out the wishes of the recently deceased that were left unfulfilled. They can’t charge money for their services because their clients are all ghosts, and they basically just assume that Karma will reward them for helping out the dead. It’s about as unreliable a revenue stream as you can get, but the formula reliably results in episodic stories that are just as hilarious as they are creepy. I will say the characterization isn’t the deepest I’ve ever seen, but Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service’s uniquely blasé take on the supernatural investigator genre is unmatched. I personally relate to this series because I am sitting here staring at my mostly-useless English degree on the wall, and think it would be cool if I could talk to dead people. I highly recommend reading this series in physical form, because the volumes are bound with a coarse brown paper that feels great to hold.
3: Ouran High School Host Club
If you’re comparing it to the rest of this list, Ouran High School Host Club may seem like an outlier. That’s because it is! I don’t normally go in for romantic comedy manga -- most of them are too sweet for my tastes. But Ouran is special due to the sheer levels of self-awareness it’s on. For starters it’s a reverse harem story (where a girl protagonist is surrounded by cute boys), but it’s a satirical reverse harem on top of that. Haruhi is a scholarship student at an elite high school, and she’s looking for a place to study when she stumbles across the Host Club, a group of boys dedicated to entertaining female “clients” with their charm and good looks. The impoverished Haruhi accidentally knocks over an expensive vase on her first day and finds herself in massive debt to the club, which she agrees to pay off by becoming their indentured servant. This is further complicated by the fact that everyone mistakes Haruhi for a boy, and Haruhi’s natural talent for impressing women. I read this series later than most of the others, when I was finally coming into my gender identity. Even after the boys find out Haruhi is female, they accept Haruhi as she/he lives as a boy throughout the series. Transgender representation in manga and anime is unfortunately rare, and this series stands out as the only one I’ve read that actually puts the lived experience of trans people at the center.
2. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure
As far as manga goes, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is in a league of its own. What started in 1987 as a Fist of the North Star ripoff now has over 10 million copies in circulation and is seen as one of the most influential manga series of all time. Everything under the sun has Jojo references in it nowadays -- I feel like I see them everywhere I look. Hirohiko Araki’s art style is instantly recognizable, featuring a mix of dramatic posing, impromptu color palette shifts and extensive high-fashion influences. His work has even been featured in the Louvre! The main conflicts of the series generally revolve around beefy men battling each other with Stands -- psychic manifestations of their spirit that look like even beefier robots. But fights in Jojo aren’t the drawn-out strength contests we’re used to seeing in battle manga; instead each fight is like a puzzle game where opponents try to outwit each other with their obscure and oddly specific abilities. As someone who writes fiction sometimes, I have so much respect for Araki’s fearlessness as a creator. Petty concerns like logic and continuity are thrown aside in service of greater narrative and artistic goals. Why are these action heroes wearing skimpy outfits with boob cutouts? Because Araki appreciates the male form and dammit, so will you. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure set a new standard for what I expect, not just from manga but from any narrative media. It’s a series that’s always trying to surpass itself, and Araki’s art and vision have only improved in the 33 years he’s been working on it.
When I started reading manga online in high school, one of the first things I read was Kentaro Miura’s Berserk. Berserk is a dark fantasy tale about Guts, a lone swordsman who is betrayed by his friend and commander Griffith in a demonic bloodletting the likes of which the world has never seen. A moody teenager, I was drawn to Guts’ surly, brooding demeanor and his penchant for cutting people clean in half with a giant sword. I usually hated medieval stories and didn’t much care for soldiers, but Berzerk had this wistful, eerie energy that I resonated with in my adolescent alienation. Even now I credit the series for inspiring my morbid sense of fashion and design, what with its skull pillars and blood fountains and whatnot.
I was struggling with masculinity at the time I was reading this (to say the least) and felt reassured by seeing Guts as a big badass that could still let his walls down, cry and feel vulnerable sometimes. In the end, all he really wants is to protect the people he loves and find somewhere he belongs. And while Griffith is absolutely an example of the Sissy Villain trope (a tendency to give villains effeminate traits), young effeminate me still enjoyed watching the girly boy commander put Guts to shame in a duel when they first meet. While Berserk definitely has a reputation of being an intensely gory and “edgy” manga series (and a few scenes still live in my nightmares), much of its success can be accredited to Miura’s deep and complex character writing. Casca is fierce, determined and a commanding leader, but gets incredibly awkward in social situations. Griffith is undeniably a monster, and so the audience feels conflicted when they see him engaging in acts of kindness.
While Death Note was the first series I read, I really have to credit Berserk with inspiring my love of anime and manga. And although Jojo comes close I’m still looking for another series that pulls me in forcefully, the way that Berserk did. Until then I’ll continue to obsess about it, so keep an eye out for my next article where I’ll be analyzing some of my favorite panels. Until next time! ~~<3