I didn’t grow up watching anime or reading manga. I didn’t watch Sailor Moon, Tokyo Mew-Mew, Naruto, or Bleach—none of the anime many people started watching as kids. The reasons for this are numerous and complicated, but that’s not the point. So instead, I tell you this to explain that, for much of my life, my knowledge of anime and manga came secondhand from seeing references or flipping through copies of Shonen Jump belonging to my friends. And then, as a teenager, I thought I was “too cool” for anime and manga, which is funny looking back on because I certainly wasn’t cool at all.
My reading journey, and eventually loving manga, didn’t begin until December of 2020, when I was hired as a bookseller. The holiday season, during a pandemic, was an interesting time to re-enter the retail game. It was a bit of trial-by-fire, but I quickly fell in love with talking to customers about books and being surrounded by books every day.
After a few months, I moved from behind the register to the book floor, and I could spend more time getting acquainted with the various books the store sold. Through talking to customers, shelving, and reshelving the manga section, I began building a to-be-read (TBR) list specifically for manga. During my tenure as a bookseller, I found a handful of series that stick out to me as favorites—stories I will continue to revisit over and over. And I’ll highlight them now.
Dr. STONE was my gateway manga. I’d heard customers mention it, and it sounded interesting. I’ve always loved science stories, and the premise of Dr. STONE—everyone was turned to stone, only for the main protagonist (Senku) to wake up thousands of years later—is unique. I had to know what was up. So I picked it up from the library and was hooked on chapter one.
Senku is an unconventional shonen hero with no fighting skills but plenty of brain power. His scientific knowledge is enormous, to the point where he may as well be using magic. But despite being a literal scientific genius, he doesn’t fall into the mad scientist trope. Or he does, sort of, but not in an evil way. Instead, Senku is a benevolent mad scientist hell-bent on resurrecting everyone turned to stone and restoring civilization.
For a post-apocalyptic series, Dr. STONE is so full of hope and joy it’s a delight to read. And the ever-expanding cast is full of colorful characters with disparate personalities, all trying to work and live together. The Kingdom of Science is a found family, and I will die on that hill.
With Jujutsu Kaisen, I picked up the first volume on a whim because there was one copy left on the shelf, and I’d seen it mentioned on Twitter in passing. This was both a fantastic and frustrating choice, as everyone seemed to be getting into Jujutsu Kaisen simultaneously, and I struggled with finding copies for sale and long wait times on library copies.
Jujutsu Kaisen is, in my personal experiences in bookselling, one of the big four, along with My Hero Academia, Chainsaw Man, and Demon Slayer. These were titles that were next to impossible to keep in stock. We would receive 10+ copies of the new Jujutsu Kaisen volume, and it would be sold out by the end of the week, if not sooner.
There’s no shortage of unique characters in Jujutsu Kaisen, including my son, my sweet boy, and the main character himself, Yuji Itadori. Yuji is one of my favorite protagonists in all media. He wants to help people and keep them safe, to the point that he eats Sukuna’s finger, no questions asked. Yuji has that “pure of heart, dumb of ass” thing going on, and I would protect him with my life. He stays a ray of sunshine no matter what awful things happen to him.
If Dr. Stone was what got me into manga, Demon Slayer is what got me into anime. It opens strong with Tanjiro struggling through deep snow, carrying his unconscious sister on his back. And once I was invested in the anime, I had to start reading the manga.
I was lucky enough to start the series after it was finished, so I didn’t have to wait for new volumes to be translated and published. Nevertheless, I couldn’t put the series down. I flew through all 23 volumes and the prequel when it dropped. And when Mugen Train became available on streaming, I watched it and cried my eyes out at the ending. Despite knowing that no one’s life is truly safe—after all, demon-slaying is a dangerous business—it’s so easy to get attached to the characters.
In my opinion, Demon Slayer is a top-tier story filled with plenty of action, well-written characters, and plotlines.
ZOM 100: Bucket List of the Dead
Like Dr. STONE, ZOM 100: Bucket List of the Dead is another post-apocalyptic story with an atypically optimistic protagonist. But where Dr. STONE is about rebuilding humanity in the wake of an unknown attack, ZOM 100 is about living it up during the zombie apocalypse.
Akira was one of many people mindlessly trudging through his job, being worked too hard and paid too little. And then the zombie apocalypse happened. Suddenly, Akira has nothing but free time to make a bucket list and try to accomplish it. From riding a motorcycle and kicking back in a hot spring to confessing his feelings to the girl he loves, Akira’s bucket list constantly expands with big and small ideas.
Akira is realistic in his belief that a zombie will inevitably kill him, but he never lets that get him down. As Akira sees it, death is inevitable, zombies or not, so he should have as much fun as possible before it happens. Overall, ZOM 100 is an action-packed adventure with humor and heart.
Chainsaw Man appeared on my radar when I saw it described as a teenage boy who fights demons because he really wants to touch boobs for the first time. That is a hell of a description. Admittedly, I didn’t have high expectations for Chainsaw Man; yes, the art looked stunning, and the body horror wasn’t too intense for my weak stomach, but I resigned myself to the inevitability of Denji merely being an annoying, horny disaster.
And he is. But he’s also a teenager, and who wasn’t at least one of those things as a teenager? And with all of the terrible things he’s gone through in such a short amount of years, I think Denji has earned the right to be as annoying and horny as he wants.
However, Denji, and Chainsaw Man, as a whole, are much more than these two traits. You’ve barely made it through the first few chapters before Tatsuki Fujimoto is ripping your heart out. Chainsaw Man is funny, sad, and every emotion in between. There’s a reason why, when I was a bookseller, we could barely keep it on the shelves. And that was before the anime premiered.
Frieren Beyond Journey’s End
As a bookseller, I was expected to make “shelf-talkers” for books, small cards with a short description written on them that would be displayed beneath the book on the shelf. It’s a way to get customers to look twice and potentially pick up the book. For Frieren Beyond Journey’s End, my shelf talker read, “What if Legolas stayed in Middle Earth after the rest of the Fellowship died?” Before you try and argue with me that “that’s not the entire story,” yes, I know. The blurb is designed to grab your attention and get you to pick up the book to learn more. And that’s partially the goal of this section; go read Frieren Beyond Journey’s End.
What I love about Frieren is that it’s an adventure story after the grand adventure has taken place. Frieren’s original party defeated the Demon King years ago. Quite a few years ago. And now, as the only immortal in her party, she’s had to watch her friends die. This has, understandably, had a significant impact on her outlook on life and the way she approaches forming relationships. But, after taking an apprentice, a mage named Fern, Frieren starts to open up more, trying to connect more with the people around her before they, too, pass away.
As a bookseller, I was exposed to titles I would never have found on my own, and in turn, I helped others find new titles to enjoy. And the employee discount helped jumpstart my manga collection. In a little over a year, I went from having one volume of Death Note, which I forgot I even owned, to having two and a half shelves packed with the titles I’ve listed above and a few others. Though my career path has journeyed away from bookselling, I’ll forever be grateful for the time I spent working with and around books and manga.