S.S. Astro: Asashio Sogo Teachers ROom by Negi Banno
Published by Yen Press, 2008, ISBN 9780759528987
The obvious comparison for this book is to Kiyohiko Azuma’s series Azumanga Daioh, and that’s not an unreasonable suggestion–even Yen’s site for the book name checks AzuDai. Obviously, there have been plenty of yon-koma manga, and plenty of manga with a school setting. However, the book is also considered “slice-of-life” also along the lines of AzuDai. The only significant quality of “slice-of-life” that I can see is that it doesn’t use the complicated fantasy-based character structure one finds in a lot of manga–no supernatural characters or plot McGuffins like all too many other manga, but I’m skeptical of the term. Just because something isn’t abnormal doesn’t mean it’s normal.
Yen clearly sees promise in exploiting the popularity of yon-koma in the comics market post-AzuDai. At least a couple of their other licensed titles are yon-koma, including Sunshine Sketch. Outside of Yen, the anime release Lucky Star is similarly influenced by AzuDai‘s plotless “slice of life” format.
Unlike AzuDai, which focuses primarily on students, though it gives a considerable amount of storytelling time to teacher characters, S.S. Astro focuses strictly on adult teacher characters. In AzuDai, the characters started as “types” (shy cat-lover, hyperactive girl, ditzy girl, child prodigy, and so forth) but get fleshed out with genuine depth through humorous and serious moments. By contrast, the types in S.S. Astro are more complicated–secretly pervy gym teacher, coquettish secret lesbian, sadistic nurse who likes video games. Instead of adding depth, the characters are compounded with additional quirks. There isn’t really any seriousness to be found, if that’s what one goes for.
Also, the art is good–a good deal better than Kiyohiko Azuma’s illustrations, although I’m not sure if that level of sophistication is preferable for this format. I have some reservations in comparing this book solely with Azumanga Daioh, but obviously this book only has presence in the American marketplace because of AzuDai‘s success. Obviously not every yon-koma needs to have simple, clear-line art and a plot that aims for character depth and a range between light and serious, but AzuDai is an exemplary work that satisfies fanservice-oriented otaku, serious manga fans who aren’t as interested in fanservice, and casual manga readers. Short of Usamaru Furuya, Azuma is responsible for some of Japan’s best short-form manga. That’s going to inspire comparisons as well as imitations.
But, enough about Azuma…
Overall, S.S. Astro is a dense read, particularly for manga. The limitations of the yon-komi form are pretty obvious–despite the fact that most yon-koma strips rarely serialize individually (or so I’ve heard), the creators still aim to turn a gag per strip, seemingly emulating American comic strips. If so it’s a shame, because on one hand, American comic strips are hardly worth emulating in any market, and on the other, the various formats that manga appear in allow for vastly more compelling forms of the comic strip to appear.
Perhaps the editorial position regarding most yon-koma is that they’re a sort of bonus feature for hardcore readers? A good portion of S.S. Astro is relatively difficult to comprehend, and I’m a relatively casual reader of manga. Not that many standard manga require the type of footnotes as S.S. Astro, and the staccato and overexcited action within the panels seems to show that most of the readers to whom S.S. Astro is directed are a lot more adept at coping with this type of storytelling. In short, the book isn’t really for me, and I’m not it’s intended audience anyway.
Edit to add: Check out this interview with the publisher of Yen Press by Bridgid at MangaBlog. It pretty much confirms what I’d suspected, Yen is deliberately trying to specialize in yon-koma.
Edit to add 2: I can’t remember why I thought the term was yon-komi, but it’s actually yon-koma, go figure. Spelling corrected.