Manga in the US is still something of a niche market. Along with American comic books, they have gotten some mainstream attention recently (mainly through major summer blockbusters for comics, and late-night cable TV for manga and anime), but people still have to seek it out to some extent, and the average American high-schooler is unlikely to have an Afro Ken cellphone charm. For that reason, most manga readers here are lovers of books of all kinds. Which makes a comic about a girl who has ‘sold her soul to books’ an easy sell.
May I introduce you to Yomiko Readman of Read or Die Vol 1. Yomiko, we soon learn, is a paper master. She can control paper, making it into, for example, a blast shield, or able to cut through steel walls, or dive-bomb enemies with razor-sharp paper airplanes. Because of this power, she is also the 19th person to be known as “The Paper,” a James Bond-esque title given to her by The British Library and MI6. She runs errands for them and goes on missions, often relating to acquiring a rare book and determining its authenticity. Of course, things often go horribly, horribly wrong.
We also meet Nenene Surimigawa. Having written her first novel at age 13, Yomiko runs into her when she briefly substitute teaches at the high school she attends. At first put off by a Yomiko (she comes across as a VERY enthusiastic fan), Yomiko eventually grows on her and they become friends.
The Joker is also introduced in this first volume. The leader of Special Operations, he often assigns Yomiko to cases. He’s quite clever, and has a quick tongue, but not much else is brought up about him in this first volume.
This being from the seinen magazine Ultra Jump, there is a slight lean toward fanservice throughout the book. Even the picture on the back cover shows Nenene jumping, with her short schoolgirl uniform flaring up for a panty shot. Even Yumiko, with her overly-proper manner of speech and buttoned-up outfits gets herself into some questionable situations with Nenene and with one of the villains. There is also a subplot that is reminiscent of the Stephen King novel Misery, except that the fan is an older male, and the author is a schoolgirl. Again, fanservice. There’s enough action and decent storytelling to make up for this, however.
The Read or Die story was first told in a series of 12 light novels written by Hideyuki Kurata. As far as I can tell, they have never been published in the United States, but as Spice and Wolf and FLCL have come out in light novel form in the US, perhaps ROD will follow.
Highs: Fantastically funny and relatable characters, depth
Verdict: The fanservice moves this manga closer to the ‘fluff’ pile, but there’s enough intelligence remaining that it’s worth the time to read.
Further Reading: Read or Dream, Kino’s Travels