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2021 Year in Review: Best Manga Series

By | December 21st, 2021
Posted in Columns | % Comments
Image by Mike Romeo

Welcome to the Multiversity Year in Review for 2021! To call this a weird year is a Hulk-sized understatement, but one thing that was a pleasant surprise was the sheer number of interesting and excellent comics that came out this year. We’ve got over 25 categories to get through, so make sure you’re checking out all of the articles by using our 2021 Year in Review tag.

Best Manga Series

It’s pretty incredible how accessible Japanese comics have become. They’ve long been popular in the US, but there was a time when they were hard to find. No longer! Every comic shop and library has shelves filled with manga. We at Multiversity have multiple columns dedicated to Japanese comics. That’s why as of last year, manga has become its own category. Here are our top five picks for the best manga of 2021.

Note: “Chainsaw Man” actually won our internal vote, but since the series released no new chapters in 2021, we felt it was inauthentic to present it as the best manga of the year. However, since 6 chapters were released since the 2020 vote stopped, we felt it still had a place on this list, but bumped it down to #10. – Ed.

10. Chainsaw Man

“Chainsaw Man” is the best manga of the year because it is the most eccentrically eclectic. These are probably not the first adjectives you might expect about a manga that features a chainsaw-facing demon slayer motivated solely by food and boobs, but here we are. A shonen-style manga that isn’t quite shonen, a demon hunting element that is more zany than horrifying, and a lewd hero that is more heart-felt than you would expect. That’s what “Chainsaw Man” is, it’s familiar and yet not quite like anything you’ve ever known.

Mangaka Tatsuki Fujimoto is far more tasteful and curative in his storytelling than one might think. You are distracted by the creative and unique visual element of a chainsaw-faced man (as well as the insane visual impact of these powers) but what is happening underneath is surprisingly emotional and along traditional plot lines of character development. He just doesn’t follow the standard tropes on character-type.

For instance, despite the excessive gore and boobs (or perhaps a little because of it), this is a true shonen-style manga. The themes facing challenges to a hero’s abilities, skills, and maturity are part of the call to action. It’s just that Denji, our hero, doesn’t want to heed those calls. He’s not an overly optimistic hero such as Naruto, Tanjiro, or Goku. He doesn’t believe everything will be okay, because his life is pretty terrible. He’s been poor and hungry all of his life. His only friend is a puppy-sized demon of chainsaws. Denji is more relatable and realistic to the rest of us, and that’s what Fujimoto does so well. Underneath all the cool wacky fun stuff that chainsaw battling brings us, he’s laying the foundation to become more attached to our characters as they mature throughout the series.

If the wide-spread success of a manga was solely determined by shock value or fun factor, there would be many more books like “Chainsaw Man.” The reason why it stands out is because Fujimoto never fails to incorporate the emotional element that brings us closer to his characters. Just not too close, because you know, chainsaw face. – Henry Finn

9. Kaiju No 8

I have to start this out with a bit of honesty here: when I read chapter one of “Kaiju No 8” back when it first hit, I kind of wrote it off as a well illustrated gag manga. I almost missed out on the story because of the nods to Shonen manga that trend towards slapstick comedy. Revisiting the book a few chapters late,r I found the same cool art style with a lot more action and adventure with some farce, but it was very much something that appealed to my taste. Naoya Matsumoto crafted a pretty familiar kind of story along the same lines of “Black Clover” and “My Hero Acadamia,” but with a much older wannabe protagonist in Kafka Hibino.

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Kafka washed out of being a “science hero,” fighting Kaiju and still motivated to fight the monsters that deeply affected him. He’s working in the lowly Kaiju Disposal unit when a chance pairing with a new recruit, Reno, sets him on a path that shows how heroic he is at heart. Kafka gets infected by something that turns him into a powerful Kaiju and lands him in the Defense Force third division with his childhood friend Mina Ashiro. The vast array of Defense Force members and recruits we meet and get to know over the first fifty chapters are a crew that is worth the journey to meet. The focus of the story switches between Kaiju battles and crises that force Kafka to expose his nature as a monstrous powerful Kaiju to more and more of his compatriots. The friendships and relationships that Matsumoto has are as strong a reason to read this manga as are the intricately illustrated and dynamical paced Kaiju battles. The world that he has created around them is richly detailed too, at least in the hints we have been given. “Kaiju No 8” has steadily gone from a manga that I read on and off to one that I look forward to and would love to dig deeper into because the mythology Matsumoto created feels as deep and rich as the five decades of Kaiju shows that influence it. – Greg Lincoln

8. Me & Roboco

Is there anything like a good gag manga? Shuhei Miyazaki’s “Me & Roboco” manages to be a comedy series with plenty of heart, well-utilized running gags, and no shortage of endearing characters. What started as a series about a goofy but exceedingly powerful robot maid has gone far beyond that, making every member of its cast a delight with their own drives and quirks.

With the ensemble cast and plenty of supporting characters, you never know what kind of goofy shenanigans we’re going to get each week. We’ve seen Roboco become an idol, a character who can read minds getting drawn into her delusions, development for Bondo’s friends, and a look inside the cutthroat world of manga, to say the least. Every character is interesting and likable, no matter who’s in the spotlight.

Most of all: it’s funny. This is one of the few gag manga in Shonen Jump right now that I consistently laugh out loud at, thanks to the artwork, timing, and clever writing. This is made even better by the clean, strong artwork that leans into classic gag manga styles and exaggerated character designs.

In short: “Me & Roboco” is cute, funny, and a delight to read each week. – Robbie Pleasant

7. Asadora!

“Asadora!” is mangaka Naoki Urasawa’s response to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that ravaged Japan and killed almost 20,000. Because in Japan comics are a form of Art taken more seriously than in the West, you will often find the finest artistic responses to disasters and crises in the pages of manga. Sometimes the representations are literal, like in Showa or Drifting Life, and sometimes they are fantastical metaphors for real-life tragedies. What “Asadora!” does exceedingly well to deserve to be on the best manga list for 2021 is to stay close to the real-life conditions and psyche of Japan post WWII to current day, substituting Kaijus for aforementioned disasters such as the Atomic bomb or Typhoons.

Naoki Urasawa brings us a brighter and more positive worldbuilding than in Monster or 20th Century Boys as the lead Asada Asa is a spunky and clear-headed character that is charming and nuanced. As is typical of Urasawa’s work he draws out the plot in favor of character development over the series. The kaiju element serves as a mysterious and looming disaster but quickly fades into the background to allow the character dynamics to play out in a Dickens-like manner. Characters that you hate in the beginning grow more sympathetic over time as Asa brings out the best in the people around her.

“Asadora!” is a lovely blend of historical fiction, adventure, and Japanese science fiction brought to head behind a strong female lead that inspires the characters in her story, as well as the readers themselves. This is the perfect series to read in dark times; especially since the reason for its existence is to remind people that it’s not what happens to you -but how you respond to it. – Henry Finn

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6. Blue Box

As a still somewhat novice manga reader, I’m still at the place where I’m impressed when a series subverts a form or mixes genres in a surprising way. “Blue Box” seems like two different kinds of manga shoved together: a sports manga and a teen romance manga. Some chapters lean more heavily in one direction or another, but for the most part, each week is following not just the dual pursuits of making nationals in badminton and basketball, but also their romantic entanglements. Taiki and Chinatsu’s relationship is centered around the fact that Chinatsu has moved in with Taiki’s family, a classic manga trope, but that’s where the predictability tends to end.

Instead of the series going full horndog and making every page Taiki spying on Chinatsu in the tub, the series actually has a bit of nuance to how it handles their relationship, and attempts to give both characters a supporting cast upon which to download their feelings. This is better than the usual thought bubble exposition that sometimes can strike a story like this. Kōji Miura also decides to go light on the cheesecake-y visuals and instead present these teenagers as more child-like and innocent, but not going too far in that direction, either. The story doesn’t exactly feel chaste, but it feels more restrained than some recent Shonen Jump titles.

And then, there’s the sports. The intensity of the sports sequences is impressive, but the story never gets wrapped up in the minutia of either sport. Instead, the sports sequences are a respite from the romance, and give us reason to root for the characters that is deeper than just “we want to see them kiss.” “Blue Box” is a restrained and mature manga that walks a tight rope effectively. – Brian Salvatore

5. Spy X Family

The visual presentation is slick and no nonsense, an aesthetic befitting of a solid B-level James Bond knockoff. “Spy X Family” isn’t flashy, and it’s by design. A spy husband and wife are paired together into a sham marriage and forced to adopt a daughter as a highly specific element to their primary mission. The premise is simple, and aside from the daughter being a telepath, everything is grounded in a sense of realism usually eschewed by your average shonen manga. Though the characters are straightlaced, the situation they’re in has been consistently mined for comedy since the series inception. All of this surface level poise and structure feels like an intentional feint to get the reader to forget, if even for just a moment, that they’re reading a screwball comedy manga. This makes the gags, usually misunderstandings involving the dynamics of the artificial family unit or their daughter tapping into her abilities in an untimely manner, land heavier. It also makes the emotional gut-punches hit a little harder. Against the odds, this family of convenience is becoming something like a real one, whether they like it or not. No matter how dire the stakes of the mission, “Spy X Family” never takes its own critical eye off of the heart of the story. Whatever else is happening, this unlikely bond the “Forger family” shares proves to be more important than anything else. – Vince Ostrowski

4. Doctor Stone

As “Doctor Stone” enters its final arc, now’s a good time to look back at what makes it so great. Is it the art? The characters? The plot twists? The science?

C’mon, it’s obviously all of the above.

This year, “Doctor Stone” went through some major arcs. The Kingdom of Science grew, new enemies appeared, and science continued to march on every step of the way. There were weeks when I could scarcely wait for the next chapter to come out, because I had no idea how they were going to survive the latest twist or what new secrets were about to be revealed. To say it was engaging would be putting it lightly.

Of course, all this is helped immensely by Boichi’s artwork. The unique designs, excellent depth and shading, and often times hilarious expressions all add so much to the series that it stood out far above the competition. (Even if sometimes it does add that little extra detail to remind us that Boichi has definitely drawn some hentai doujinshi in the past, not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

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While sometimes the science montages are accelerated to the point of a time skip, it still keeps the series moving at a solid pace, and we’ve come far enough to see how each step is meant to lead to the next. I’m not saying reading “Doctor Stone” will make someone a science genius, but you might at least learn a little something interesting.

And if nothing else, it’s a manga like few others in Shonen Jump. “Doctor Stone” is a smart series that doesn’t solve its problems through increasingly intense fights or ever-growing power levels, but one that uses science, technology, and a little bit of psychology at that. That makes it unique, and always interesting as it finds new ideas to throw at us. While “Doctor Stone” may end some time in 2022 at the rate it’s going towards the end, there’s no doubt it will have an ending just as exciting as its beginning. – Robbie Pleasant

3. One Piece

Eiichiro Oda kicked off the new year in the most audacious way possible, releasing the series’s 1000th chapter. Not only did this chapter feature a terrific flashback detailing Ace’s time in Wano, Oda also delivered one of Luffy’s most triumphant moments since declaring war on the World Government all those years ago. Standing alongside Zoro, Law, and Kid, in the face of Kaido and Big Mom, Luffy valiantly reinstates his declaration to become the Pirate King. It’s a simple moment, similar to one we’ve seen countless times before, but the scope and energy had me hooting and hollering nonetheless.

Oda carried this energy throughout the year as the battle in Onigashima raged on. Despite the absurdly large cast, Oda has managed to highlight several Straw Hats. In particular, he’s delivered satisfying moments for Zoro, Sanji, Jimbe, and my personal favorite, Robin, who has been in desperate need of attention. Yamato, another favorite of mine, has cemented his place in the world of “One Piece” in the most satisfying way, standing out among the best of the “Worst Generation.” It may be too much to hope for, but I certainly hope we see more of him once Wano wraps. Perhaps a spot among the Straw Hats is in his future?

This year saw Oda taking more breaks than usual, which I’m extremely grateful for. In light of the tragic loss of Kentaro Miura and the frequent health issues of Yuki Tabata, mangaka health and well being is more visible than ever. Oda’s style seems to be a little looser of late, his linework scratchier and more frenetic, but no less powerful or pleasing than it has ever been. – Zach Wilkerson

2. Blue Period

Have you ever had that moment when art speaks to you? I mean when the art says something personal beyond the image, makes you see, hear, smell, or feel something, maybe something you can’t really put your finger on? When the art speaks directly to you or makes you feel seen. “Blue Period” is a story about that kind of art, how it can communicate beyond words and the drama in the lives of those who make art and those who appreciate art. In fact, “Blue Period” did just that for me as I flipped through Afternoon monthly; one random chapter, taken out of context, stood out among the other stories and asked to be noticed. Tsubasa Yamaguchi’s approach to eyes, expression and posture communicate much more than my rusty Japanese skills could grasp. There is a passion in her art that speaks beyond the pages; it’s what her story is about and it’s also why her story works and can capture readers. Her cast is diverse and complex in the first five volumes that are available currently in English.

Tsubasa Yamaguchi’s storytelling skills inspire actual feeling; there is joy and hope in the book that will honestly bring you tears or make you smile just as much as those moments of deep worry, stress and despair. It’s the kind of book that could be a novel for the depth of its characters, but words alone would not communicate as well as the the unique nature of comics and art.

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Her characters will surprise you as you get to know them, much like the people around you. It’s a book about art, it’s a book that will teach you about art. It’s a book that may make you want to make art. – Greg Lincoln

1. Sakamoto Days

It’s difficult to overstate how much of a delight “Sakamoto Days” has been. The balance of heart, humor, and action is on par with the likes of “Dragon Ball,” and the same goes for its cast of characters. Alongside Sakamoto and his family, we are introduced to a quirky supporting cast of assassins and martial artists. Shin, the telepathic assassin, is a perfect foil to the typically quiet and stoic Mr. Sakamoto. Lu, daughter of Chinese mobsters and user of the Drunken Fist style, is a charismatic feminine presence in the vein of Bulma or Nami.

Early chapters feature a series of mishaps and bumbling misadventures as various assassins attempt to claim the price on Mr. Sakamoto’s head. These one-offs and short arcs slowly build to a grander saga that sees Mr. Sakamoto confront his past as the greatest assassin in Japan.

Despite the dark and often extremely violent subject matter, “Sakamoto Days” remains hilariously funny. This duality is best highlighted in one my favorite recurring bits. The sweet, unsuspecting shopkeeper persona of Mr. Sakamoto is frequently replaced by the lean, fit, assassin Taro Sakamoto, catching unsuspecting assassins off guard before they meet a nonlethal beatdown. His subsequent return to the doughy and lovable Mr. Sakamoto is always a delight as it usually accompanies a charming and idyllic scene of familial bliss.

With its charming cast, interesting world building, and perfect balance of humor and action, “Sakamoto Days” ranks among the best of the current Shonen Jump line-up. – Zach Wilkerson

//TAGS | 2021 Year in Review

Multiversity Staff

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