Manga-ka: Yukiya Sakuragi
Publisher: Viz Media
Rating: All Ages
Release Date: November 2010
Synopsis: “Before the day his comic book drawings came to life, Taro was an ordinary boy. Now his characters are in danger and it’s up to him to save them! With the flick of a magic pencil, Taro transforms into Terry (a terrier) and enters his comic book world. The adventures ahead are more amazing than anything he ever imagined.”
Children’s manga has only recently started to trickle into the domestic market, with VIZ and Udon each offering a clutch of Japanese titles tailored to this growing segment in the graphic novel market. While there has been lots of manga targeting younger fans like the Shonen Jump line, what struck me as interesting about this range of titles is that they are aimed at early readers. Taro and the Magic Pencil takes this a step further than other all-ages manga in serving as a bridge between children’s story books and comics, similar in the approach of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Captain Underwear books, if for a slightly younger audience.
While using word balloons and other traditional comic effects, Taro often utilizes splash pages, making use of paneled pages when the story calls for it. The illustrations are big and friendly, with basic backgrounds and deceptively simple designs. In bringing together elements of picture books and comic books, it takes advantage of both formats strengths and prepares readers for comics by introducing them to the language. Word balloons, side gags, and visual narratives blend in with more storybook styled narration, creating a great introductory read for younger readers.
The cast is fairly endearing as Morimoto employs a round, big footed cartoon style, introducing us to a nervous looking but very brave bunny and other unexpected friends. Morimoto’s clean artwork and strong layout choices give one a sense of organized chaos, evoking the doodles of children within Taro’s imaginary world, but keeping a definite polish on his work that captures the eye with his humorous character designs. The appeal of having the main character be an artist who creates his own characters adds another level of appeal in the artwork, showing kids that they too can draw and create, an aspect that shines in the book’s best twist.
As Taro gets transported into his comics, he brings the reader along in a fun way. How does the reader get involved in his misadventures? Not only does it blend picture book and comic storytelling techniques, but Taro doubles as an activity book. This aspec sets the title apart from regular manga, as readers have to participate in the story, helping Taro in his quest to save his creations from the evil King Crossout. The book manages to include aspects of drawing, mazes and other puzzles, blending them in with the plot through restoring those who’ve experienced Crossout‘s evil use of his eraser or helping Taro escape from assorted silly situations. The humour in these segments pleasantly skews towards potty humour, the core of children’s comedy, as Taro teams up with a surly crocodile to escape the intestinal track of a sea monster. Readers travel through the maze of a monsters intestines with the help of their own magic pencil, avoiding poop along the way. Potty humour, where would children be without you?
Production values were fairly high, resulting in an attractive package for kids. While primarily black and white, there are several colour splash pages at important moments in the story. Alternating between the two works within the context of the story, as the black and white scenes evoke Taro’s usage of his pencil. The colour pages scream primary, vivid colours, like out of a colouring book, arriving at key moments such as Taro’s seeming defeat of a sinister crocodile. This also keeps the price point low, at the 7.99 VizKids standard. The trim differs from other VizKids books, using the larger SigIkki size, even including French flaps with cute colour comic strips as a bonus. These flaps foldout with extra illustrations of the cast and instructions on how Terry can use his pencil. VIZ has flipped this release, yet as a kid’s manga it makes perfect sense- like Vertical Inc’s release of Chi’s Sweet Home, VIZ is targeting outside the otaku niche. They‘re aiming for general audiences with a slickly produced package whose art style and presentation match other popular works aimed at kids.
With a can-do lead who uses his imagination to his best, and a format that lets readers participate in the adventures, Taro and the Magic Pencil is a great start comic for young fans, and a nice addition to the diversity of manga available domestically on VIZ’s part. If you have a little would-be comics reader you want to introduce to the format, Taro is a well drawn, cute way to start things out. With it’s simple premise it might not strike many manga fans as a good gateway for younger readers when the identify manga with more “serious” fare like Naruto or comic classics like Bone, but it’s full of energy and subject matter that kids devour, combining the core kid hobbies of gross-out humour and doodling. This sort of book is exactly what kids need. A book at a reading level suitable for those not ready for the more complex dialogue and story lines of comics for slightly older kids, and one that serves as a good step along the path to being a dedicated reader.