Tom Spurgeon got me to buy this, so now I’m passing the baton.

Cromartie High School Vol. 1 (of 9?)

I second Spurgeon’s opinion on this. In fact, I raise the stakes.

This is a very funny comic book.

Written and drawn by Eiji Nonaka, translated by Brendan Frayne, and released by ADV Manga, the comics wing of the prolific anime distributer, “Cromartie High School” is far more in line with the work of Michael Kupperman than most of the manga comedy I’ve seen, leaning in large part on the dissonance between a stolid, stiffly serious visual style and absurd storytelling action for much of the humor, and that’s quite a relief. I recognize that laffs are subjective things, so I must simply tell you that this book had me giggling aloud at several points, a difficult thing to get out of me when reading comics. There's nine volumes of this stuff out in Japan, from what I understand, and while I don't know exactly how much of it ADV has the rights to, I hope it's a lot.

There’s twenty-three chapters of story included here, plus some bonus material; each chapter runs exactly six pages, and generally stands on its own (save for a lone two-parter), although you’ll notice a bit of general plot movement if you read it all at once (and you very well might end up doing that, as I devoured the entire book in one sitting). Takashi Kamiyama, our protagonist (as he’s often identified via subtitles), is a quiet, serious, studious sort, who’s also entirely free of the shackles of common sense. As such, he enrolls in the infamous Cromartie High School, the very worst school in all of Japan, just to prove some nonsensical point. He fits right into the student body, which is curious considering that they’re all punks and badasses with the occasional gorilla or robot or burly-chested fellow who bears a suspicious resemblance to a deceased rock singer from back in the day, only with bigger muscles and more chest hair. Takashi and his friends must then learn to navigate the stormy seas of high school, although nobody ever studies or does much of anything school-related for 90% of the time. Instead, characters argue about who had the baddest nickname in grade school, supporting cast members experience angst about being in the background for much of the time, a few villains show up to little effect, and Takashi often tries to institute a sense of normalcy into the proceedings (teaching students to have normal, boring coversations, for example), always failing in his quest because he fits in far better than he’d expected.

But this doesn’t adequately convey how funny this stuff is. Nonaka’s art is very serious, with almost nothing in the way of exaggerated cartoon effects or typical manga iconography (save for plenty of speed lines). The same character expressions and postures are repeated over and over again, almost giving the book a cut-and-paste feel. But such repetition is used cleverly, so when Nonaka introduces a random element into the art (say, a character wearing a pointy birthday hat, which are inherently funny to begin with), it's doubly amusing. Even the gorilla or the robot are given real weight on the page, stolid visual purpose, which makes their very presence more humorous. And the interaction between such a seething, muscular visual style and the plots of some of these stories is the core of the book’s appeal. Take the two-part story, in which a group of characters race through the streets via taxi en route to a confrontation with a rival gang. There’s plenty of sweating and gritted teeth and whooshing scenery, despite the fact that story mostly revolves around how carsick the gang’s leader is getting, and how the taxi driver keeps getting more and more lost, extending the length of the trip to the point of agony. The ‘jokes’, so to speak, are largely dialogue-driven (as they are through most of the book - it’s quite wordy at points), but their impact is heightened by the inappropriate visual aplomb that Nonaka applies. And it was a marvelously effective structure for me, although I’ll admit that the style of humor here is not for everyone; even when it’s loud, it still manages to be oddly subtle, which I can’t quite explain. I haven’t even gotten to the excellent running gags, like the fact that virtually every character is identified as being 16 years old, in total disregard for how old they’re drawn as. And these characters... you get to know them. Despite all the silliness, there’s genuine personalities developed for every member of the large cast, which is a nice trick. I really want to see more of Hirai the Flunker, an older (*gasp* 17-year old) student who had to repeat his grade, and now wanders the halls friendless and unshaven, desperate to find a younger student to impart ‘wisdom’ onto, although he’s clearly just looking to distract himself from his own loneliness.

Plus, there’s a funny bonus story about pro wrestling, some translation notes, a comic the author claims to have drawn in five minutes, and a free (well... ‘free’ considering that the book costs a dollar more than the average manga digest) mini-dvd that contains the first two episodes of the “Cromartie High School” anime (in a zany coincidence, also released in the US by ADV!), although it should be noted that the episodes are an Adult Swim-sized 12 minutes each, which I know isn’t entirely fair to say considering that the 12-minute tv format was in use in Japan well before Adult Swim hit the airwaves in the US, but whatever. Each episode adapts a handful of chapters of the comic into animated form, occasionally grouping chapters by theme (like putting all of the shocking character introductions or robot humor bits right after one another). The animators (among them, the much-loved Production IG) try hard to translate Nonaka’s style to the screen, using computer effects and bits of background business to decent effect, but the tone is sometimes a little too self-referential (at multiple points urging the audience to just read the comics) and lacks the pleasing chafe of Nonaka’s art. Not to mention that the English dub (no subtitles or Japanese language included on this preview) isn’t very good, with the voice of Takashi in particular often lapsing into exaggerated wackiness with a full-on dry-as-dust style would be best (he may just be emulating an effect from the Japanese language performance of the same character, though). Maybe it’ll be better in the proper dvd release, with the Japanese dialogue and a whole bunch of episodes in a row. Regardless, you also get a very good comic, 160 pages of it, for eleven dollars, and that’s pretty great right there.