Worst, vol. 1
by Hiroshi Takahashi
$12.95 Digital Manga Publishing
Cromartie High School
by Eiji Nonaka
$10.95 ADV Manga
High school in Japan must be a pretty rough place! Based on what one reads in certain manga, high school boys are not concerned so much with the three R's as they are with proving who is the toughest badass around.
In Hiroshi Takahashi's Worst, Suzuran High School is considered to be one of the toughest schools for boys; not because of the academic rigor, but rather the brutal way in which the social pecking order is established. At the begining of every year, the upper classmen force the incoming first-year class to face off in hand-to-hand combat in order to prove who is the toughest badass (and by extension who will rule the class).
Into this situation comes Hana Tsukishima, a bald-headed country bumpkin who is innocent and freidnly, but whose mastery of martial arts can make quick work of any badass wannabe. He shares a boarding house with four other first-years, run by a suspected Yakuza (and his cross-dressing brother).
Having already laid waste to a bunch of bullies before the school year starts, Hana starts to make friends in school, but gets caught up in the excitement of the Freshmen's Battle. He enters, vowing that if he wins the contest, no one in the freshman class at Suzuran will be allowed to rule.
Takahashi's art is attractive, and he delineates his characters well, especially their out-of-the-early-eighties hair styles. The larger-than-normal size of the book really gives the art room to breathe.
Presumably Japanese high schools really aren't like this, as situations are obviously manufactured and exagerated for satiric effect. By taking typical social situations of rank and dominance and presenting them as contests of physical conflict, manga such as Worst are able to explore in an exciting and explicit way the unseen battles of male society. Known as 'Yankee' manga, these stories of young men and thugs as battling badasses seem to be rather popular with the young males at which they are aimed.
Taking a satirical piss on badass high school manga though is Cromartie High School from Eiji Nonaka. A funny spoof on 'Yankee' comics, CHS finds Takashi Kamiyama accidentally enrolling at the titular school, a school for deliquents renowned thorughout Tokyo as the home to the biggest badasses around. While not a badass himself, Takashi finds himself the unofficial leader of a group of badass misfits, his quick mind and relative social adjustment being recognized by the other students as leadership material.
Among the students who find themselves in Takashi's group are Freddie, a mute, hairy-chested wrestler-type old(er) guy; Shinichi Mechazawa, a barrel-shaped robot who doesn't seem to understand that he's not a human; and Gorilla, a, well, gorilla. The other characters' quirks may be less outrageous, but still manage to play on stereotypes, such as Yutaka, the large bald Yakuza-wannabe badass who falls easy prey to motion sickness; and Takeshi Hokuto, the child of privilige who finds that his dad's government connection won't be of help at Cromartie, so he invesnts a secret conspiracy in the upper reaches of society which he claims that he is on a secret mission to overthrow.
The typical episode of Cromartie High School finds the students facing a standard high school badass situation (e.g. face off to decide who is the toughest badass), but they either end up getting sidetracked or fall to a piece of logic from Takashi that circumvents the conflict all together. It's made all the more funny by the completely straight way in which all the characters approach their situations, as if every insane thing they do or encounter is perfectly logical. In CHS, the characters play straight men to the absurdity of the plot.
As funny as Nonaka's comic is--and it often is quite humorous--his art is, well, limited. Not to say that it's bad--his figures seem to have walked out of a Ryoichi Ikegami story--but it's a lot of talking heads, usually in 2/3 profile, and there's very little attention paid to background, scene setting, or anything beyond basic storytelling. In that way it has more in common with a comic strip than a full-fledged comic book, but it works given the nature of the material. Still, CHS might work better as a satire if it more closely resembled the material of which it is making fun.
Both Worst and Cromartie High School make good starts in their initial volumes, and their differnt approaches compliment each other as a reading experience.
(A review copy of Worst was provided by the publisher.)
Rating (for both): 3 (of 5)