A meme said 2021 was more like 2020(1), which honestly makes a lot of sense to me. Instead of feeling like a new year, it felt more like 2020 just spilled into another one.
During the year, I continued doing a lot of what I did during the second half of 2020 – staying safe, hoping friends and family stayed safe, and cautiously starting to hang out with friends and family, ending with a 59,000 person convention that miraculously managed to not lead to a considerable upsurge in cases in New York City despite being the first reported case of omicron in Minnesota (the man caught the disease before attending).
So while it seems like 2022 will be yet another 2020(2), there’s more hope than ever that an after is likely.
Entertainment, though, was a huge boon just as ever. While the Olympics and resurgence of covid did lead to some push outs, the surge in pandemic related spending meant that the two major entertainment giants Kakao Entertainment (through its webtoon subsidiary Kakao Page) and Naver created a literal firestorm in webtoon related acquisitions, including Tapas, Radish, Wattpad and Wuxiaworld.
In addition, Bilibili continued the rollout of its international version of Bilibili Comics, and other companies, including Comico, pushed out with their rollout.
If you’re wondering why it all seems to be comic-related, the answer is simple – more Japanese people have smartphones than ever, and during the pandemic, when you’re stuck at home with no TV, what exactly would people turn to other than books?
Somehow, despite having written for this site for years, I have never managed to create a top manga (Japanese + North Asian) list despite being my number one hobby. Like Japan or Korea, I am stuck in an isekai phase, with romance comedy/fantasy being my number one subgenre of choice, so readers beware when looking at what I’m currently obsessed with.
Top Ranking (unordered, alphabetized):
Blue Period deserves its Manga Taisho Award (given in 2020). Beautifully drawn with relatable themes even if you don’t particularly like art (such as imposter syndrome, the struggle against mediocrity and the continuous drag that is one’s career), this series deserves all the love it gets.
Doughnuts Under A Crescent Moon
I have many a word (none of it particularly positive) about the bulk of queer fiction (BL and GL included) out there, which is why I tend to wait until it ‘matures’ a bit to allow for stories that represent more realistic and less heteronormative patriarchial stereotypes of queer relationships. Luckily, I didn’t need to wait as long as I had to for GL to get to this phase, with this year’s Doughnuts being an excellent recommendation from the podcast Mangasplaining.
Into the Light, Once Again
Most of the time, I read reincarnation stories where the main character meets a horrific end to their first life for revenge stories. This was a happy surprise, though, when I got wholesome family dynamics with a dash of healing from trauma instead of revenge, complete with cute art. Indeed the kind of healthy story I needed for the year.
Kill the Villainess
This series was particularly unusual because it talked frankly about the power dynamics that would be rife in your Cinderella stories without beating around the bush. It almost felt like an Evangelion-type analysis of these villainess stories – just what sort of person would the so-called prince be? What would the character types be like in real life? And does the original heroine even indeed have the ability to choose? Fascinating questions with an excellent sense of pacing, particularly in digital format.
Redice Studio is likely the Shonen Jump of Korea, and I do not take that title lightly. Where Shonen Jump has One Piece and Naruto, Redice is the studio behind the webtoon giant Solo Leveling, a series so popular that even Nikkei Entertainment called it one of the single most significant series in Japan today despite its overt Korean nationalism, something this Korean American found incredibly shocking.
I prefer Omniscient Reader for various reasons, whose occasional fourth-wall breaking and gripping character development make it much more engaging than Redice’s other works. In addition, a well-deserved anime adaptation for this action shonen was announced at the end of 2020, though no release dates have been announced yet.
Oshi No Ko
I usually approach idol anime or manga in the same fashion: a wide berth and absolute avoidance. Learning that this was Aka Akasaka’s return to tragedy, though, I couldn’t resist trying the series out, and its quality floored me.
A very unusual reincarnation plot, it balances both comedy and tragedy in equal measure almost perfectly, with the absolute best and most realistic treatment of the idol industry I have seen since the terribly acted but well written 22/7.
Of course, it’s a mystery why this hasn’t been licensed yet. Still, I suspect the buyers are waiting until this series inevitably gets picked up for an anime adaptation to announce the English language version of the manga – to avoid an adaptation would be a crime against art.
Song of the Sky Pacers
China may be more known for its danmei (boy’s love) series, but the country’s true gift to the world is honestly the genre known as wuxia. You may know this from movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or House of Flying Daggers.
Xia Da is one artist that truly puts all of this to life in her work. With magical cultivators and stunning action scenes, Song of the Sky Pacers brings all of this to life in a unique fashion that is hard to beat.
Spy x Family
Despite my myriad of problems with the Viz application, the Shueisha publishing company tends to be some of the most innovative in modernizing and adapting manga for the new digital age.
Spy x Family was one of the first works made straight for their Shonen Jump+ application, complete with a simultaneous international rollout. So when this series rightly became one of the forefronts for new shonen, I felt like it was indeed a case of effort being duly rewarded.
There’s honestly a little bit for everyone with a balance of well-researched world-building, comedic story plot, action sequences, and beautifully designed characters. I genuinely hope the anime adaptation would live up to even a fraction of the manga’s charm – that would be enough to win the world over.
Villainess Lives Again
Take Game of Thrones and replace its flat written female characters with wonderfully fleshed-out ones. Then, put a villainess spin on it along with effective romantic relationships – the result would be the Villainess Lives Again.
Villains are Destined to Die
One major issue with any adaptation is that a scene that could be highly impactful in one version of the series may be done poorly in another adaptation. Unfortunately, that is not the case for this work, which is based on a huge web novel from Korea.
An enthralling villainess story with highly high personal stakes for the main character, this quasi gamified work continues to enthrall despite going on for over 70 chapters – something not every piece does well. The ending to season one was fantastically done, and it looks like that strength is continuing stronger than ever before.