Top 21

21 Great graphic novel localizations from the first 21 years of the 21st century 

Gabriel Karandyšovský headshot

Seth Hahne

Seth T. Hahne is a graphic novel critic, illustrator, comic creator, writer, and homemaker.

The graphic novel employs a unique set of tools to convey meaning. And with those differences come a different set of challenges for localizers.

Sound effects need to be conveyed, and signage needs to be translated. The methods for doing so will vary from publisher to publisher, or even sometimes from work to work.

Additionally, translators bringing work from Japan face opposition from a tradition of amateur localization that became entrenched through the early popularity of unauthorized translations, known as scanlations. These amateur translation teams believed strongly that retaining linguistic idiosyncrasies such as honorifics and particular Japanese phrases added to a translation’s authenticity. Today, as publishers seek to combat the draw of pirate translations of popular Japanese graphic novels, they have to choose between best translation practices and appeasing an errant fandom that demands their -sans and -kuns and onsens.

The last 20 years have seen a rise in graphic novels imports into the US, largely from Japan, but also still trickling in from other Asian nations and Europe. While there are hundreds of great examples of localizers doing what they can to balance the issues confronting English-language editions of international work, with the following recommendations, we’ll look at 21 examples of how localizers have successfully navigated some of the challenges unique to the medium.

PING PONG

Taiyo Matsumoto

Translated by Michael Arias
Lettered by Deron Bennett
Edited by Mike Montesa 2 vols
Published by Viz

Taiyo Matsumoto’s Ping Pong is a frenetic story following five top-class high school ping pong players as they each strive to balance their desire to win with their love of the sport. Peco is a natural ace but has grown sloppy with too many easy victories. Dragon is the indomitable champion backed by the best gear, tech, and training. Demon isn’t a prodigy but has trained hard to beat Peco into submission. China has been kicked off the Chinese national team and hopes that winning the Japanese nationals will begin his redemption arc. Smile has lost his love for the sport because his best friend Peco goes easy on him. And everything hinges on what Smile does next.

Matsumoto’s virtuosic illustrations trade heavily on dynamism, making the smacks and dives burst from the page. Part of that art is the sound effects Matsumoto uses  — and so important are they to experiencing the story that in adapting the book to an American audience, letterer Deron Bennett put substantial work into redrawing those effects into English.

From uniquely tailored choice of fonts to hand-drawn text within the art, Bennett’s lettering across three localizations of Matsumoto’s work is careful, innovative, and has brought a level of quality to manga imports that is still relatively rare.

Because the original effects in Ping Pong are art themselves, Bennett hand-drew English-language substitutes and often found himself drawing in background art to fill the holes created by the absence of the Japanese script. In each case, he worked to put himself into the mindset of Matsumoto, trying to decide how the creator would have drawn a particular PAK or a KYAK or a POK. Method acting for letterers. Bennett describes it as somewhat like forging a signature: “You practice the forms, pushing aside your own tendencies to adopt the other person’s hand.”

Ping Pong is also helped by bringing on Michael Arias to translate. Arias, a longtime fan of Matsumoto, directed the film adaptation of an earlier Matsumoto work, Tekkonkinreet, as well as translating two other of Matsumoto’s graphic novels, Sunny and Cats of the Louvre. Arias’ familiarity with Matsumoto’s work, with his narrative pacing and his voice, lends itself to a seamless translation, easy to fall into. Ping Pong, like most sports stories, lays out a series of character studies. Any excitement or inspiration derives not so much from the display of athleticism so much as from seeing these characters grow against the obstacles in their paths, crash against them, and become new creations. Arias’ script punches well and keeps us invested throughout.

EMANON

Shinji Kaijo and Kenji Tsuruta

Translated by Dana Lewis
Lettered by Susie Lee, Betty Dong, and Tom2k
Edited by Carl Gustav Horn
4 vols
Published by Dark Horse

The graphic novel adaptation of Shinji Kaijo’s series of Emanon novels is marked foremost by the beautiful illustrations of Kenji Tsurutu. (This is reasonable because the visual nature of the medium usually pushes the illustrations to the forefront.) But quick on the heels of being struck by Tsuruta’s powerful drawings, the reader will find themself chest-deep in an ambling, heady Before Sunset-style discussion of the nature of being, memory, and identity; and whatever of that exists in Kaijo’s original text, it’s in translator Lewis’ prose that we find ourselves easily drawn into the discussion.

Emanon is a terrestrial science fiction story following a young woman who holds memories going back to the dawn of life, three billion years ago. Whenever she reaches an age of reproductivity, she has a child and that child receives all the memories of her mother and all prior iterations of herself.

The care with which the book has been localized is made evident in the afterwords by series editor Carl Gustav Horn. Beyond giving the reader access to a wealth of background information about the book, its context, and its original creators, Horn also praises both its translator and letterer. He happily characterizes Dana Lewis as not only a translator but also a detective, as she sussed out many of the historical details described in the books’ text. Horn also takes a moment to praise Susie Lee for her lettering, redrawing signage to look as if it was English in the original. Many Japan-to-US localizations will simply place notes translating signage in the gutter between panels — a less time-costly and intrusive solution, but also one that diminishes the fluidity of the reading experience.

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WEST COAST BLUES

Jacques Tardi, Adapting Jean-Patrick Manchette

Translated and edited by Kim Thompson
Lettered by Brittany Kusa, Gavin Lees, and Rich Tomasso
Production by Paul Baresh
80 pages
Published by Fantagraphics

Kim Thompson’s translation delivers a precise, antiseptic, stacatto iteration of Tardi’s chaotic crime story that could sumptuously be read aloud with that rapid downbeat that André Dussollier uses in the opening narration of the film Amelie. It injects the American reader straight into a pop cultural vein built of familiar noir motifs, reminding one immediately of the rapid-fire patois that formed the dialogical bedrock of those films.

Jean-Patrick Manchette’s story erupts from the common noirish trope of the uninvolved man accidentally caught up in a dangerous world he doesn’t understand and doesn’t want to. Gerfaut witnesses what might be a car chase and rounds a bend in the forested road to find one of the cars wrapped around a tree. He begrudgingly helps the bleeding motorist to a hospital, dumping him there and leaving because he became bored of the whole scene. Shortly after, a series of attempts on his life begins, and a cacophonic year punctuated by crescendos of violence stretches out before him.

Tardi’s art in the book is blunt and his depictions of violence brash, keeping with the equally blunt and violent plot that unspools in Manchette’s story. Thompson’s translation heightens the drama by playing each line as a thudding hammer, relentlessly playing at the forge; so much of what the narrator tells us feels extraneous, but the dulling deluge of words words words plays counterpoint to the blam blam blam of gunfire.

The lettering team at Fantagraphics did a fine job playing into the scene as well. Paul Baresh created a font from Tardi’s original lettering, allowing Brittany Kusa and Gavin Lees to populate the book’s word balloons. Kusa hand-lettered various notes within the book, and Rich Tomasso took care of things like newspaper headlines (while there is a trend in contempo-rary comics to simply use a font for these elements — book titles, shop signs, newspaper headlines — that Fantagraphics took the time to hand draw these elements shows their commitment to a quality final product).

All of Fantagraphics’ localizations of Tardi’s work are worth considering, especially their work on Goddamn This War!, which includes translation of the book’s sizable backmatter, a detailed archive of WWI historical notes to embellish the graphic novel’s content proper.

INVITATION FROM A CRAB

panpanya

Translated by Ko Ransom
Production by Nicole Dochych
224 pages
Published by Denpa

In Ko Ransom’s translation of panpanya’s collection of short stories, the reader finds themself beckoned by the opening story’s titular invitation. An invitation into rumination, an invitation into curiosity, an invitation into the expansively claustrophobic, an invitation into a whole world of possibilities. More than anything though, an invitation into mystery.

Invitation From A Crab investigates our sense of the world through the oblique. Thoroughly mundane until thoroughly not, these stories are clever and fascinating, approaching everyday living from the tangential. They’re cynical, but not in a negative way. They’re skeptical, but not in a way that belies belief. They’re richly imagined, pushing the reader to laugh, to consider. They’re really weird but — and in seeming contradiction — not really all that weird at all. You just have to give yourself up to panpanya’s world.

A creator in the vein of Haruki Murakami, panpanya explores the hidden corners of the world, and so it’s fitting that Ko Ransom carries a tone throughout the work that seems an echo of Jay Rubin and Phillip Gabriel, Murakami’s own translators. This is especially evident in the ruminating mini-essays panpanya includes between each story. These are delightful excursions into a genre that might just be called thinking-bout-stuff. For instance, speaking of the old-timey sound of broadcasters in the past:

The overall feeling in the air during any era is created by the nature of its technology and its media. While we don’t know what that feeling is while we’re inside of it, we can find out the nature of the air we were once surrounded by after there are innovations in technology and media. We become capable of thinking that they’re old-timey.

Nicole Dochych does a great job rendering signage in the book in English, mirroring panpanya’s own scratchy style of art. And while use of the barred I for sentences beginning with the letter I is a bit contentious (going against what’s generally considered best practices), the lettering throughout is otherwise fine, keeping the reader focused on the mysteries unfolding across the page.

ANGOLA JANGA:
KINGDOM OF RUNAWAY SLAVES

Marcelo D’Salete

Translated and edited by Andrea Rosenberg
Edited by Kristi Valenti
Designed by Keeli McCarthy
Production by Paul Baresh
432 pages
Published by Fantagraphicsa

Angola Janga’s translator, Andrea Rosenberg, has spoken of the ethical dilemma of translation, a quandary that goes beyond any political questions that arise in a text. She acknowledges the fabrication that must occur when a translator overwrites the words of an author (an operation intrinsic to every translation), but she notes that to the reader, fidelity to the author often merely hinges on the question of readability, of fluidity. To the reader, a good translation is one that ceases to be conceived of as a translation, one in which the mechanics of story vanish into the experience of the book.

Angola Janga is historical fiction exploring the final days of the communities of runaway Angolan slaves in the forests of Brazil, following the life of Antônio Soares, a figure mentioned only once within the historical record, a man of ignominy. Brazil between 1500 and 1900 accepted 5.6 million African slaves, nearly 12 times as many as North America did in its own slavery period. In the latter half of the 17th century, escaped slaves formed communities in the jungle to protect themselves from slave-hunting parties and Portuguese soldiers. The collection of these communities was known as Angola Janga. Marcelo D’Salete has been particularly interested in these stories. In 2014, he wrote a collection of short stories published in the US as Run For It (2017), and in 2017 he created the far more expansive Angola Janga.

Rosenberg’s translation is interesting because she leaves words from under the Bantu umbrella alone (as D’Salete must have as well), delivering a text in plain English but also filled with non-English terms from either Kikongo, Kimbundu, or the large Bantu linguistic family. While an alienating choice (requiring either simple acquiescence or continued reference to the helpful glossary appending the book), it in a very real way strengthens readers’ experience of peoples catastrophically alienated from each other, on the one side by standing victim to inhuman atrocities, and on the other fear, hatred, and a monstrous sense of self importance.

HOW THE WORLD WAS:
A CALIFORNIA CHILDHOOD

Emmanuel Guibert

Translated by Kathryn Pulver
Designed by Rob Steen
160 pages
Published by First Second

How the World Was is a mediated memoir in which Emmanuel Guibert has interviewed the elderly Alan Cope (emmigated from America to France in 1948, now deceased) and spills out Cope’s recollections across a couple books. This volume follows on the heels of Alan’s War, which largely concerned itself with Cope’s place in World War II and its aftermath. How the World Was, the second volume, functions as a bit of a prequel, winding the clock back to explore both Cope’s childhood in Southern California during the Great Depression as well as life as immigrants to the state from the Midwest.

Guibert recreates a number of Southern Californian environments now lost to time save for the archival efforts of photograph collections and artistic renderings. They portray another kind of world and will be fascinating to students of human history and nature. Scenes from the early 20th century abound. Soda shops, old-town L.A. County, the boardwalk at Santa Monica, simple Depression-era housing. Guibert succeeds wildly in inculcating a nostalgia for a thoroughly American world now lost to us for all time.

Kathryn Pulver for her part is also victorious in lending Guibert’s Cope a voice that can easily be read as the ruminations of a sharp-witted older man (Guibert met Cope as a 69-year-old stranger in France and their daily conversations for the next five years until Cope’s death led to these books). Pulver’s Alan Cope is the eccentric, wise, and philosophical grandfather figure who remembers the past with great clarity and is happy to share it with any willing to exult in the mystery of a time forever vanished. It’s a treat to find this very American work brought over from France to an audience who can best appreciate it.

Designer Rob Steen (as Céline Merrien did also in the first volume of the collection, Alan’s War) uses a font in standard casing that resembles a clear, easy hand-printed style — and is in fact built from Guibert’s own lettering. The blocks of text are tight and comfortable (and resemble the lettering from the French original), making reading easy while further indulging in the hominess the storytelling proposes.

IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD

Fumiyo Kouno

Translated by Adrienne Beck
Lettered by Karis Page
450 pages
Published by Seven Seas

War is unfortunately an evergreen topic. While much of our war-related entertainment focuses on our soldiers’ pathos, glory, and tragedy, it can help to dive into conflicts from the perspective of the ordinary citizen who is caught up in such wars. And perhaps even more useful and fascinating are the stories of those who get stoked to believe their own side both right and true, even while atrocities abound.

Suzu grows up in Hiroshima, but an arranged marriage brings her to the nearby coastal city of Kure to petition her marriage. The alienation she feels married to a man she doesn’t know, dwelling with a family she doesn’t know, and living in a city she doesn’t know sets the foundational tone to the international drama about to play out.

As the story moves inexorably toward the Hiroshima Moment, we see daily life gradually squeezing tight under the rising tide of war. In This Corner of the World is a study in how the commoner interacts with a gradual increase of heat and pressure, and what it means to lose  — and lose badly. The chaos and cost depicted bring the reader into the morass and evokes empathy for those people who were aggressors, who perpetrated countless war crimes, and who cheered for those things out of ignorance and nationalistic fervor.

Letterer Karis Page takes Adrienne Beck’s translated script and brings it to the page with able choices of font faces and word placement. More than that though, in laying out page after page of informational images, she helps bring the details of mid-war civilian life to the contemporary reader across the Pacific. Maps, charts, diagrams, inventories, paper dolls, and intstructionals  — Page does an excellent job making these accessible to the reader. In This Corner of the World is an important, life-affirming, heart-breaking work, and Beck and Page’s careful localization gives the reader the space to feel it, to grieve it, to find a home in these distant lives.

PORTUGAL

Cyril Pedrosa with Ruby

Translated by Montana Kane
Lettered by Calix
264 pages
Published by NBM

Portugal is beautiful, thoughtful, lively, and lived in. Sentimental without ever feeling cloying, Cyril Pedrosa’s story of lost and abandoned family connections explores real human dilemmas without ever feeling overbearing.

Simon is disaffected. He feels rudderless, aimless, and ambitionless; he remains inert in his career trajectory, in his longterm romance with Claire, in his connection to family (both immediate and extended). There is nothing for him, no sunshine in his life.

A chance trip to Portugal for his publisher sparks something nascent in him, some memory from childhood, some connection to his family’s long-dissolved connection to the place where they came from. Simon’s grandfather left Portugal to work in France during the tyranny of Salazar, and that’s where his branch of the family has remained. A series of dissolutions in Simon’s life and a visit with extended family gives Simon the opportunity to take an extended visit to Portugal, where he will explore, investigate, and tend to the once-pruned family vine.

Across Pedrosa’s gorgeously illustrated pages spreads a story built from the raucous impact of two rivers smashing together and then intermingling. There is French, there is broken French, there is Portugese, and there is broken Portugese. In Montana Kane’s translation the Portugese (both fluid and broken) is retained as is, but the French is rendered in English — or in broken English depending on who’s talking. (There’s also a bit of German that remains untranslated, but that’s just a bit of the multicultural background flavor Pedrosa employs along the way.) Kane expertly gives the native French speakers deeply human dialogue, filled with the pauses and moments of consideration we’d expect from people picking their way through a life of turmoil and the hidden intentions we all know as native soil. Whether the broken English she uses for her Portugese characters attempting to communicate in French actually mirrors the idiosyncrasies native to the Portugese-to-English dynamic, I cannot say.

DEAD DEAD DEMON’S
DEDEDEDE DESTRUCTION

Inio Asano

Translated by John Werry
Lettered by Annaliese Christman
Edited by Pancha Diaz
10 volumes
Published by Viz

Inio Asano is somewhat an enigma in the graphic novel scene in that he seems innately to grasp some honest truth about the zeitgeist that readers aren’t finding in other authors. His bibliography is largely composed of cynical, embittered work that portrays the damages we acquire from life  — frankly and without euphemism. His narratives are raw and the expression of them unfiltered. He depicts violence and sex without sentiment. The honesty with which he is perceived to treat the world endears him especially to readers in their teens and twenties; they tend to see in him an adult who won’t lie to them about the way the world is.

Dead Dead Demon’s seems a bit different at first glance. The unhealthy, often brutal sexuality of his other work (notably Goodnight Punpun, Downfall, and A Girl on the Shore) is absent, and the series is marked by hyperbolic humour and a zest for daily living. It’s not quite veneer, but this happy-go-lucky atmosphere — eventually explained as a plot element — does float atop a deeply critical work, taking sharp aim at the many, many failings of contemporary society (specifically Japanese society, but also easily applicable to the US social dilemma as well). For a 2014 book that mostly concerns following a couple young women through the end of high school and into college life against the backdrop of a failed alien invasion, the criticisms Asano levels seem almost prophetic of the national public discourse in 2020 America.

John Werry pours out a firehose of social chatter in the book’s text, catching the voice and flavor of all of Asano’s tar-gets, whether young or old, liberal or conservative, authority or disenfranchised. His dialogue sparkles and shines in exactly the spastic oversaturated way that Asano clearly intends. 

Annaliese Christman for his part blows the top off with careful lettering choices that exactly suit the mood of every panel. Text in messaging apps feels like text in messaging apps. News articles look like news articles. Advertisements, magazine covers, news chirons. They all look like they were originally presented in English. The transformation of Japanese sound effects to English is bold and striking, adding weight to the story as it rolls out. It’s breathtaking how much work Werry and Christman put into this localization.

OPUS

Satoshi Kon

Translated by Zack Davisson
Lettered by IHL
Edited by Carl Gustav Horn
384 pages
Published by Dark Horse

Satoshi Kon died too young. Decades too young. One of the most exciting film directors at the edge of the new century, Kon died in the middle of his fifth film at age 46 of pancreatic cancer. His work is widely celebrated and homaged (when put charitably) by American directors like Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky. Before Kon stepped into directing at age 34, he was a comics creator, notably assisting Katsuhiro Otomo on the landmark series, Akira.

Unfortunately for fans of his graphic novel work, Kon’s film directing career took priority and he never again returned to comics. Opus is one of those casualties, a metafictional adventure series concerned with the collapsing boundaries between an author and the stories he tells. It also remains unfinished, sort of. Though ended prematurely with the cancellation of the bi-monthly anthology it was appearing in, Kon was in 1996 negotiating a graphic novel release with a final concluding chapter. However, busy directing Perfect Blue and subsequent films and television series, Kon never finished the book. Two months after his death in 2010, Tokuma Shoten published the collected Opus along with what existed from Kon’s draft of a final chapter, found in his files after his death. Four years later, Zack Davisson and Dark Horse produced a US edition of Kon’s book. Prepending the final chapter, there is a note from the Japanese publisher that includes the following:

This chapter was found in [Kon’s] files after his death. It is mostly uninked and drawn in rough pencils. However, even given the raw state of the art, we feel there is enough here to distinguish the characters and understand the story. After consulting with Kon’s family and getting their permission, we are honored to publish the final chapter of Opus for the first time, just as it was found.

This chapter was found in [Kon’s] files after his death. It is mostly uninked and drawn in rough pencils. However, even given the raw state of the art, we feel there is enough here to distinguish the characters and understand the story. After consulting with Kon’s family and getting their permission, we are honored to publish the final chapter of Opus for the first time, just as it was found.

Zack Davisson delivers an excellent translation, with a fluid-ity of text that delivers Kon’s story with electric verve. His dialogue is sparkly and exciting, exactly what a space-bending thriller needs. Dark Horse makes the decision not to reproduce the sound effects in English but does have letterer IHL add English versions of each as part of the art. It’s a workable cost-saving option, looks fine, and doesn’t hinder the book.

JANE, THE FOX AND ME

Fanny Britt and Isabel Arsenault

Translated by Christine Morelli and Susan Ouriou
104 pages
Published by Groundwood Books

Growing up is hard. Not the least of our troubles comes from the directives we unconsciously absorb from the cultural atmosphere. We see our mothers who look fine to us fretting about the way they look, and we suddenly know that we must not look right either. We see the advertisements of diets, we note the emphasis on the approaching bikini season, we hear the whispers of pounds and BMIs, and we are affected. It’s in the air; it’s what we breathe. And then we throw in the savage catastrophe of pre-teen campaigns of ostracization and bullying focused on weight. It’s too much to bear, and none of it’s true. But it’s the atmosphere, what we inhabit. Our only hope is an intervention.

Hélène is a sausage, or so she sees herself. A sixth grader trying on swimsuits, in a frilly nautical-themed suit she describes herself as a ballerina sausage, in a plain black suit she is an undertaker sausage. She is, of course, neither of these things, but again, it’s the air she breathes.

Formerly a member of the popular group of girls at school, Hélène has somehow come under their negative scrutiny and is shunned. It’s never clear why, but they’ve targeted her weight and she believes their taunts. She retreats into reading Jane Eyre, and while she enjoys the book, her perspective twists Jane (clever, slender, and wise) into someone who deserves good things while she deserves none of it. It takes a momentary surprise encounter with a fox in the woods to push her to recognize and then grab hold of her desire for the kind of human connection she’s been reading about in Jane Eyre.

The translation partnership of Morelli and Ouriou is deft, and they deliver a script that shines with matter-of-fact report-age. Each reader will perform a text to their own taste, but Jane, The Fox and Me lends itself particularly well to a quick sort of aloof downbeat cadence.

Spring arrives and so do the flowers on our balcony.
Barely two months of school left.

A taste of eternity
My mom stops smoking,
Again.

The English adaptation of Britt’s and Arsenault’s book does something rarely seen from a graphic novel localization. It appears that the book’s artist, Arsenault herself, has hand-relettered the book according to Morelli and Ouriou’s translation. This adds immeasurably to the feeling that the book is a work of art in its entirety.

AYA OF YOP CITY

Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie

Translated by Helge Dascher
2 volumes
Published by Drawn & Quarterly

Taking place in Yopougon (colloquially known as Yop City), a suburb of Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire, Aya in Yop City tells more than the story of Aya and her friends, acquaintances, rivals, and relations. Through Oubrerie’s illustrations, Abouet unveils a culture unique to a 20-year period, one now lost to that era in history.

Between 1960 and 1980, Côte d’Ivoire thrived economically in a way that other newly independent African nations did not. Rather than drive out European populations and influences, those ties were welcomed and strengthened — and the wealth and assistance of France helped the economy boom in particular ways.

Aya in Yop City exists in the US as two volumes, each containing three of the original graphic albums in which the series originally appeared. Aya is in her early 20s, single, beautiful, wise, naive, and soberminded. Readers follow Aya negotiating life as a young woman, but also the stories of Bintou and Adjoua and Hervé and Moussa and Félicité and Mamadou and Innocent and Gregoire and their families and more. It’s a multi-multi-threaded narrative that’s rambunctious and cacophonic.

The book is also filled with proverbs, and this is one of many places where translator Helge Dascher shines.

A dead goat isn’t afraid of the knife.
No matter how long a log floats in the river, it’ll never be a crocodile.
It’s not the color of the husk that makes the coconut sweet.
A baby drinks its mother’s milk even if she’s got scabies.
An angry bull can’t mount a cow in heat.

One of the idiosyncrasies of life in Côte d’Ivoire as presented in Aya is the constant use of old proverbs to make points, comfort the abused, and perpetrate savage burns. In response, all the characters nod in understanding as if the speaker just irrevocably proved something. It’s very amusing when one of the cast moves to France and does the same thing and these poor French people have no idea what’s going on.

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SHOWA: A HISTORY OF JAPAN

Shigeru Mizuki

Translated by Zack Davisson
4 volumes
Published by Drawn & Quarterly

Showa is the name for the era of Japanese history that spans the beginning of Emperor Hirohito’s reign at the end of 1926 until his death in 1989. An incredibly violent and tumultuous time (economically, socially, politically, and militarily), Showa is almost ironically named using the characters for “enlightened peace.” The period includes financial collapse, the abandonment of democracy, a decade of war, the destruction of society, foreign invasion, and then reconstruction. It also includes a lot of normal people just trying to get through it all with food and a roof. Mizuki’s graphic novel history of the era tackles both of these stories in a satisfying way.

Published in North America across four large 500-page volumes, Showa lands at over 2100 pages; but so much happens in the 63 years covered that Mizuki blows through moments and historical figures at a diabolical speed. Major incidents may receive a passing mention. Important cultural figures will be introduced and dismissed in the space of a single panel. For his Japanese readership, this probably works very well. They’re likely pretty familiar with cultural figures like Ryunosuke Akutagawa from reading his literature growing up, so mention of his suicide probably feels more like a known historical moment than it might for many North American readers. It would be comparable to a similar graphic novel history for American readers covering Hitler’s death on April 30 and then mentioning that “21 days later, Bogey married Bacall.”

So while Mizuki’s rapid-fire name dropping across the historical section of the book works fine for its intended audience, bringing the book to North America required special consideration. All major names and events are noted, and readers are directed to an appendix that contains a brief textual summary of each. Historical figures are named and dated, their birthplace and relevant position cited, and are given a brief summary to convey their historical value. It’s perhaps not ideal, because a reader constantly flipping to the end of a 500-page volume is going to interrupt the flow of story; but it still works and throwing in ten extra pages at the end keeps the book cheaper to produce than making the pages two inches taller to accommodate explanatory footnotes.

Mizuki tells the story of Japan through four avenues: 1) through dry recitation of facts via a narrator, 2) through con-versations between people of the era, 3) through an explainer character who pops in from one of Mizuki’s other series, and 4) through Mizuki’s own self, related via a series of memoir vignettes. Translator Davisson keeps the voices of each appropriate to who they are so that it really feels as if Showa is being told by a wide cast of actors. While a first experience of the book might be stuttering as the reader stops fairly often to gather bearings and flip to the appendix or Wikipedia, on a reread one will find the flow easy to absorb — an excellent work to convey a complicated history.

PACHYDERME

Frederik Peeters

Translated by Edward Gauvin
Lettered by Lizzie Kaye
88 pages
Published by SelfMadeHero

It’s not a particularly large cut of the market, but the graphic novel format does particularly lend itself to depicting the dreamy, the illusory, and the hallucinogenic. Many use this for short episodes within a larger story, perhaps laying out a drug-induced vision or a potent nightmare. Some, however, indulge in book-length episodes of reality bending. Sandrine Revel’s recent graphic novel biography of Glenn Gould, for instance, takes place within Gould’s head in the moment of the massive stroke that would take his life.

Pachyderme also trades on the idea of a sort of pre-death hallucination, following the wandering of a woman’s conscious spirit after she is thrown from her vehicle in an automobile accident  — only it’s more than that and there’s more than one conscious spirit involved in the hallucination. Pachyderme occupies a space similar to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. It’s bizarre, magical, dreamlike, fuzzy. We know the scenes, the people, the places. We recognize that a story, or a couple stories even, are unfolding, but there’s dissonance. There’s a blurry bleary sort of drunkenness that sets in, making discerning the what and the wherefore difficult. The whole thing is rather mind-bending, or at least something one has to bend their mind around, but Frederik Peeters’ illustrations and Edward Gauvin’s translation lead the reader by the hand so they cannot get too lost.

Peeters is a Swiss cartoonist who plays in multiple genres from science fiction to memoir to fantasy to westerns, but common to all his work is an interest in allowing surrealistic moments to intrude on the grounded sense of reality his characters inhabit. It’s a habit that his readers know to anticipate and look forward to. That Pachyderme should be devoted to this penchant marks it as an ambitious work, wildly disorienting on the first read but falling more easily in place once anticipation gives way to expectation. Gauvin enables Peeters’ choices by providing a theatrical translation, full of the furtive mystery that rules this woman’s reveries. Haunted by a life in which she gave up on dreams for stability, this Cold-War-era woman has probably nurtured her longing for the adventurous on thrilling serials and films, on the French mid-century equivalent of dime novels – and this is what comes through in Gauvin’s work.

Even Lizzie Kaye’s lettering, an irregular hand-written font mixing uncials and miniscules, adds well to the quiet, under-stated chaos of the experience. It’s a particularly interesting choice because the font is not what one would usually find in a graphic novel but also doesn’t remotely resemble Peeters’ own lettering, so it feels itself still more like an informed artistic choice to emphasize for the English reader the disorienting dream-state being entered.

DELICIOUS IN DUNGEON

Ryoko Kui

Translated by Taylor Engel
Lettered by Abigail Blackman
9+ volumes
Published by Yen Press

Comedy is hard, but translating comedy and bringing it over to a-whole-nother culture with different puns, different idioms, and different cultural boundaries for humor is harder. Much harder, actually. That Delicious in Dungeon page after page brings laughs and mirth and good feeling volume after volume is incredible. Never a false note, never a joke that fails to land. Ryoko Kui’s book about Dungeons & Dragons-style adventurers stuck in a dungeon, forced to subsist on the monsters they kill along the way is wildly entertaining thanks to Taylor Engel’s beautiful script.

Delicious in Dungeon isn’t even primarily a humor book. It’s funny, sure, but it’s also exciting, mysterious, adventurous, and an exhibition of as creative a world-builder as any working in the fantasy genre today.

The setup feels too simple. A group of adventurers is work-ing to clear out a dungeon full of monsters, discover treasure, and find riches and rewards for their labor. With a bit of bad luck, one of their members is eaten by a dragon while they are teleported to the surface. The leader insists on returning immediately (without taking time to reprovision) to find the dragon, dispatch it, and recover the body before she (his sister) is digested so they can resurrect her (a normal function of dungeon adventuring). Without fresh supplies, they will have to eat the monsters they kill. What rolls out looks like it will follow the conventions of the cooking comic genre, with lots of images of food prep, cooking, delicious looking meals, and satisfied gastronomes — only with meals like hippogryph tempura or walking mushroom hotpot. While this would get old relatively fast, Kui builds in several compelling mysteries to be picked at as the adventurers travel deeper into the dungeon’s ecosystem.

Engel’s work is excellent whether in drawing laughs, in conversationally situating characters and their relationships, or in conveying the lore and world-building that Kui very thoughtfully has laid out.

CHILDREN OF THE SEA

Daisuke Igarashi

Translated by JN Productions
Lettered by Jose Macasocol and Annaliese Christman
5 volumes
Published by Viz

Daisuke Igarashi is a unique creator. There is nothing available in the North American graphic novel scene that is nearly so dedicated to the sacred mystery of the realms of nature as his Children of the Sea. These five volumes, in a way, serve as a church, as a holy place, that directs the reader to sit awestruck before the majesty of the sea. Every line he draws is a vector pointing toward exultation and exaltation.

Igarashi’s illustrations are delicate in that his penwork is thin, glancing, lean. His style is sketchy, scratchy, rough, and atypical. There is no polish on his pages, and it may be easy for neophyte readers to mistake his masterful work for that of an amateur draughtsman. If one throws themself into his work, however, they’ll find themselves suffused in a lushly reverent, organic style that succinctly takes the chaos and scattered beauty of nature and concatenates it into a specific image, crafting a kind of paragon nature  — a nature that is more nature than nature itself — which may sound spacey.

But Children of the Sea is a spacey book. It posits a cosmic connection between the sea, it’s creatures, and the wider universe. It’s one of those books that gets so far out into the mystical that it can be hard to pin down what it’s actually suggesting. Translators JN Productions do well with Igarashi’s script. It would have been easy to get lost in the spacey cosmic-babble, but JN Productions keeps the work grounded in down-to-earth conversational dialogue  – and when they can’t, they just dive into the mystery, allowing the reader to be washed over by wave of the numinous.

Macasocol and Christman (replacing Macasocol for the fifth volume) do well with the lettering, keeping things clear and legible. Their scrubbing of Japanese sound effects to make room for English-language onomatopoeia is seamless and only detectable by close examination.

O MAIDENS IN YOUR SAVAGE SEASON

Mari Okada and Nao Emoto

Translated by Sawa Matsueda Savage Lettered by Evan Hayden
Edited by Haruko Hashimoto
8 volumes
Published by Kodansha

Mari Okada is particularly known in film and television for her depictions of youth and youthful romance, with the playful, hesitant back-and-forth that denotes that kind bumbling, awkward attempt at wooing and at being wooed. And of course, much of the credit for those depictions in North American localizations of her work rests in the facility with which her mediators convey those raucous, delicate, hilarious conversations. Contrasting to her film work, in Okada’s first graphic novel series, O Maidens in Your Savage Season, the absence of actors’ inflections lending to the experience means much more weight is put on the translator’s work in painting a believable, entertaining story world for readers.

O Maidens is a book that could have gone horribly wrong. Four high school girls, each with their own situations and problems to overcome, are the four members of a classic lit club. They use their time together to read erotic scenes from classic literature aloud, exploring the curiosity for their own burgeoning sexuality in a safe way. The description sounds both implausible and very easy to get wrong. Still, despite expectations, what unrolls is a funny, poignant, and highly nuanced exploration of four individuals and their tumultuous coming-of-age stories. The feeling of the book swings from mood to mood: from funny to nerve-wracking to sweet to uncomfortable to thrilling to inspiring, and back and forth and around and about.

For a book about girls written by a woman and drawn by a woman, publisher Kodansha could have easily torpedoed their English-language edition by giving the job of translation to a man. It’s not so much that a man couldn’t translate O Maidens well, but more a question of conveying trust. Even before opening the book, a reader will generally trust a woman to depict the intimate hearts of young women before they would a man. On top of this, Kodansha’s selection of Sada Matsueda Savage is a delightful choice, delivering a crisp script that is sweet and scandalous, heartfelt and harrowing, and feels like it gets at something we don’t often see in coming-of-age stories.

TWISTS OF FATE

Paco Roca

Translated by Erica Mena
Designed by Jacob Covey
Production by Paul Baresh
Edited by RJ Casey
328 Pages
Published by Fantagraphics

One of the great unsung military units of the Second World War was La Nueve, the first to enter Paris at its liberation. Composed largely of refugees from the Spanish Civil War conscripted into the French Foreign Legion and then held in Vichy concentration camps for years, their goal was to help the French push fascism out of France so that France could help push fascism out of Spain in turn. Only 12 of the 160 members of La Nueve survived the war, and their contributions were largely forgotten until recently. The last surviving member of La Nueve died at age 99 in 2020, a casualty of COVID-19.

Paco Roca’s Twists of Fate tells the story of La Nueve from the flight from Alicante at the end of the Spanish Civil War through to the liberation of Paris. Roca’s narrative conceit is that he’s interviewing elderly, forgotten Miguel Ruiz about his part in the company, hoping to turn Ruiz’s experiences into fodder for a Kelly’s Heroes-style wartime adventure. Rather quickly, he realizes that Ruiz’s own life tells a more important and poignant tale than what he’d planned; and so, the reader listens in on Roca’s interview and watches Ruiz’s life play out in the intervening pages. And while it reads very well as non-fiction, Ruiz is a creation of Roca’s and the memories related are a conglomeration of elements from other people’s lives and stories. That this isn’t ever apparent during the reading of the book is a testament to Roca’s talent as a storyteller.

The job of a translator is often that of a detective as well, and Erica Mena makes for a great Holmes. Twists of Fate is filled with places, names, battles, events, and the machinery of war — a lot for military enthusiasts to get aggravated by if not translated properly, using common conventions. She also unveils well the attitudes and personalities of the French and Spanish, the fascists and communists, the officers and the soldiers. And best of all, the delicate touch Mena gives the growing, warming relationship between Roca and ex-patriated Miguel is the standout performance of her script. It’s where the heart of the book lies, and it’s through Roca’s eyes that we see and process the horrors Miguel’s endured.

WANDERING SON

Shimura Takako

Translated by Rachel Thorn
Production by Paul Baresh
Designed by Alexa Koenings
8 volumes translated
Published by Fantagraphics

The convention of including honorifics in translations of Japanese graphic novels generally comes from the ‘80s and ‘90s, when legitimate animation and comics imports from the country were rare. There had built up a fan culture in the US in which amateur translators would add subtitles to Japanese videotapes, and copies of these bootlegs would circulate like cyclicals, being copied and passed on. The trend was toward leaving some Japanese terms in place if the translator believed there was no suitable way in which to translate them or if they could convey a distinct (and illusory) sense of “Japanness” to the viewers. So terms like onsen (hot springs bathing), baka (idiot) and onisan (older brother) remained merely transliterated. As well honorifics used (somewhat) to convey position in social hierarchy also survived translation. This contrasts with best localization practices, in which translators seek to unveil rather than to gatekeep.

The convention established in bootleg video translation carried over to comics as well, so that when publishers began to import Japanese work in earnest in the early 2000s, there was already an entrenched fan community that had expectations for what authentic translation should look like. Japanese graphic novels in the English-language market usually included an appendix explaining honorifics for readers not yet accustomed to the translation idiosyncrasy. Translators have regularly pushed back for a couple decades against this trend. And while translators like Wandering Son’s Rachel Thorn and Zack Davisson (of Showa and Opus) still find themselves having to argue against including honorifics in social media forums, Wandering Son is the one place where Thorn has decided to retain honorifics. Describing her translation decisions in an afterword, she explains that as Wandering Son is so intimately concerned with gender implications and self-conception, her job would have been immeasurably more difficult without retaining the honorifics:

After 20 years of professionally translating manga, I am hard pressed to recall a case in which I retained honorifics. In the case of Wandering Son, though, skipping over honorifics would completely close off to the reader an aspect of the work that is both important and intrinsically interesting.

Nearly 20 years after writing that, Thorn stands by the choice and says it’s still the only title in which she’s retained honorifics.

THE ETERNAUT

Héctor Germán Oesterheld and Francisco Solano López

Translated by Erica Mena
Edited by Gary Groth and Kristy Valenti Production by Paul Baresh
Designed by Tony Ong
372 pages
Published by Fantagraphics

Beginning in 1957 Héctor Germán Oesterheld and Fran-cisco Solano López produced 350 pages of an eerie Twilight Zone-esque comic strip across 106 issues of the weekly comics magazine Hora Cero Semanal. The series, positing an extraterrestrial invasion of Argentina, became iconic within Argentina and Latin America both for its crisp sci-fi storytelling as well as its veiled (and in sequels, less veiled) anti-fascist themes. Oesterheld eventually was disappeared in 1976, a victim of the Dirty War (along with his three daughters).

There’s this thing about a lot of older graphic novel works that are well-venerated. Despite all the dignity associated with the place they hold in comics history, despite all the ways they influenced what we see in the field today, and despite all the ways they stood apart in their day  — despite all these very important and legitimate things, many of the great works of the canon feel hackneyed and primitive when held in comparison to our contemporary greats. And we should expect this. We should expect that when giants stand on the shoulders of giants they should loom much larger.

The Eternaut, however, remains fresh. Unlike the unending adventure-story engines of their North American contemporaries, Oesterheld and López craft a sustained narrative while simultaneously driving toward a definitive climax and conclusion. The story begins with an improbable, eerie death-bringing snowfall in a climate resembling south Florida, follows a group struggling to survive an alien invasive, and ends in a Serling-esque twist. Not only were comics stories this long unheard of in the US in the 1950s, but The Eternaut reads probably as well today as it did then. And Osterheld’s insis-tence that the individual is not the hero but that the hero is the collective reads as novel now as it must have 60 years ago.

Erica Mena’s translation adds an additional kick by mirror-ing the style of the pulpy science fiction and horror comics of the 1950s that dominated the racks before Marvel turned the comics world on its head in 1963. It’s intentionally a little bit kitschy perhaps, but the American reader in 2021 will know exactly where to hang their hat even from the first page. And this translation choice holds the additional benefit of easing the reader into believing they know what they’re in for. This makes what comes next all the more surprising. The Eternaut is an important release, and Fantagraphics does a great job down all lanes, from translation to printing to packaging. The volume additionally contains an introduction by Argentinian science ficiton specialist Martin Hadis and an afterword by Juan Caballero, who publishes work about the Buenos Aires literary scene.

LASTMAN

Balak, Michaël Sanlaville, and Bastien Vivès

Translated by Alexis Siegel
Designed by Rob Steen
6 volumes translated
Published by First Second

I didn’t appreciate Alexis Siegel, translator of Lastman, nearly as much before the English language release was suspended at six volumes out of twelve. Left on a literal cliffhanger (the main character is hanging from a cliff), I purchased the French volumes, hoping to pick my way through with a translation app. I knew that I would be missing out on nuance and that the experience would be less than ideal, but at the least I could find out What Happened.

I’d underestimated just how much the authors relied on slang and idiom. It took me hours and hours to get through just a single volume, and I had only the barest sense of what people were saying from page to page.

Imagine you don’t speak English but you try to use Google translate to render a character’s speech in your own language, only the character is colossally drunk. “Shmaybe yoooou should minnnd yer own bizshnizz.” You’re not going to get very far.

Then I encountered an unlicensed translation of those final six volumes. The translator worked hard to bring the idioms, slang, dialects, and jargon into understandable English, but the difference between the professional translation and the unlicensed labor of love was still evident.

A good professional literary translator doesn’t just convey the meaning of the original text. They are also talented writers in their own right, creating highly readable text in their own writing. Lastman is a world-spanning fantasy, sci-fi, mixed martial arts adventure featuring dozens of unique characters, each with their own manner of speaking. If it were not for the collapse of the series in the North American market, I would never have been able to truly appreciate just how great a job Alexis Siegel did with the books.