So apparently, manga - serialized Japanese comics - got huge while I wasn't looking. Those smelly teenaged urchins who make little campsites in the aisle at Barnes & Noble? Next time you trip over one of them, take a moment to examine the surrounding wall of odd-looking paperbacks. There's a lot there to like there. Nearly every conceivable genre is represented, but the two titles that have really gotten my interest lately are both about death, a subject they approach in very different ways.
Death Note (VIZ Media)
Tsugumi Ohba & Takeshi Obata
The Basics: A shinigami (basically a Japanese grim reaper) drops his notebook in the mortal world, and high-schooler Light Yagami finds it and discovers that writing someone's name in the book will cause that person to die. He immediately begins wiping out criminals in a wave of mass vigilantism. The authorities know something is up, and they start to close in, kicking off a cat-and-mouse game with increasingly personal stakes.
This 12-volume Death Note series is available in its entirety in America, and it's endlessly entertaining. Much of the "action" takes place in the main characters' heads as they deal with questions of morality and strategy, but there isn't a dull page in the bunch - it's relatively cerebral but avoids getting bogged down in it. Someone's always dying or almost dying or getting caught or almost getting caught. Light is calculating and ruthless...but he's not the only one with those traits.
This one is fairly well-known in America, thanks in part to the anime adaptation that airs on the Cartoon Network, but I'd stick with the books.
The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (Dark Horse)
Eiji Otsuka & Housui Yamazaki
The Basics: At a Buddhist university in Tokyo, five students with unusual abilities - like communicating with the dead - locate corpses and transport them to the place that will allow their suffering to end. While that might sound like it has to potential to be a feel-good tear-jerker, these babies are labeled "horror" and wrapped in plastic for a reason. Generally (but not always), the peace the sprit seeks can only be gained through horrific acts of vengeance. Scary!
This is an ongoing series, with six volumes currently available and more on the way. Each 200-page book contains several standalone stories (continuity becomes more of a factor in later volumes). The thing I notice again and again in Kurosagi is the quality of Toshifumi Yoshida's translation. He has a feel for realistic dialogue, and he's able to communicate a great deal of the books' humor. Much of that humor comes from Yuji, a boy whose sock puppet receives caustic, obscenity-laden reality checks...from an alien. It works in context.
I've seen reports this week that the Kurosagi books aren't selling very well, despite near-universal critical praise. That's a shame, but it doesn't have to stay that way. Product links are in the widget below (it may not be visible if you're viewing this in a reader).
Oh, one last thing: True to the original books, these are read from right to left - you start at the "back" of the book, on the upper-right corner of the page, and work your way toward the front. It's not as disorienting as it sounds, and you don't even think about it after a dozen or so pages. Give it a try!