A few weeks ago, the Talking Comics crew got a listener question regarding sports stories in comics. We sat around and scratched our heads a bit and offered some measly recommendations. Viz has put together a sampler of sports manga series for beginners on Comixology, a few of which I’d like to highlight here as well as add others.
Before we dive into some series, there are a few elements of sports manga that are common across stories. Typically, they feature a male lead. Although it’s not always the case, boys tend to gravitate towards sports stories (several are published in the shonen genre). The series may feature a cast of characters, often in high school, who have to work together to achieve some goal of performance at a tournament. My favorites are the ones where the team itself is mediocre or worse and the addition of a spectacular player inspires the teammates to become great. An essential part of a sports manga is the interactions between players. Sports are all about teams, even if you compete individually. For male characters, this gives the opportunity to develop close relationships and demonstrate a level of dependence on one another.
Each story mentioned below covers a different sport and brings a different level of drama to the team relationship.
By Tadatoshi Fujimaki
There once was a middle school basketball team with the most incredible roster of players. Each player, outstanding on their own, elevated the game of basketball for young players everywhere. Five players are well-known and legendary, but few know of the phantom sixth member.
Seirin High School’s basketball club ends up unwittingly recruiting the unknown sixth member, but they can hardly believe their eyes. Kuroko is unremarkable in nearly every way, physically unfit to play basketball competitively. In addition, he is so unremarkable that even people standing right next to him forget he’s even there. This is his advantage.
On the court, Kuroko becomes nearly invisible to the opposing team, and even his own. He is able to make incredible passes that boost the ability of his teammates. Through misdirection, Kuroko proves that height and muscle do not necessarily make the best player. Rather, it is the combination of talents in players that create a winning team. His unusual skill makes him an invaluable member of his team.
One of my favorite artistic aspects of Kuroko’s Basketball is Kuroko himself. He is diminutive compared to the other players, and his facial expressions are always minimized. He is less visually interesting than his fellow first year player Kagami. It’s as if the reader is misdirected from Kuroko as well as the characters. The depictions of the basketball games in this series are also stellar. Fujimaki uses his artistic skill to show where the ball was supposed to go and how defense alters the direction. It may sound like a small feature, but it makes all the difference in understanding how the game constantly shifts.
By Haruichi Furudate
If Kuroko gave us the unexpected talent, Haikyu!! gives us an underdog. Hinata is a first year student obsessed with volleyball. He played his first and only match prior to starting high school against Kageyama, a setter dubbed “King of the Court”. Despite his limited experience and Kageyama’s intense training over years, Hinata declares himself as Kageyama’s rival. Of course, Hinata and Kageyama end up at the same high school playing for the same team.
The story begins with the two young men learning to play as a team rather than as adversaries. Kageyama brings a haughty attitude to the game, dissatisfied with Hinata’s limited experience and enthusiasm. Hinata brings a love of the game, and a special trick: he can get into position to spike like nobody’s business. Once Kageyama, the ultimate setter, and Hinata realize their potential, the manga takes off.
The volleyball action scenes of Haikyu!! are unreal. The art is dynamic, and the characters have an angular appeal. When they pull off a powerful move, the shading changes and increases the intensity of the shot. The way Hinata is shown moving on the court gives me goosebumps. I love the visual differences between Hinata and Kageyama and the way they compliment each other when on the court together.
Haikyu!! is published by Viz Media, and there are two individual volumes available.Viz offers a few free chapters of the manga on their Shonen Jump site. There is an anime series on Crunchyroll based on the manga.
By Naoshi Arakawa
When I heard of Sayonara Football coming to the North American audience, I flipped out. Not because I loved the series or even heard of it, but because it is a sports manga with a female lead. How cool is that?!
Nozomi Onda is a junior high girl on a boys’ soccer team. She is the only girl on the team, and her school does not have enough girls interested in playing on a soccer team to create one for them. Onda has played soccer since she was 4 years old, and she trains diligently, often harder than any of the boys. She is fierce, talented, and unpredictable on the field. Unfortunately, girls are not allowed to play in official matches. Onda’s drive to play is heightened when she learns that a former childhood friend, one she trained, will be competing on a participating team. Onda throws all of herself into getting on the field and proving just how powerful a female player is.
The downside to this story is that it’s a typical girl vs boy mentality. Onda’s teammates and coach constantly remind her that she does not stand a chance physically against boys, especially now that boys are going through their growth spurts. Onda fights against this mentality relentlessly. At times, she seems depressed about her gender and being forced out of her favorite hobby. Her skill is on par or better than her teammates, but she cannot play. Coach sees her gender as “regrettable”, disappointed that he cannot use her officially. Other sports manga feature camaraderie between players and building of relationships, notably same-sex relationships. I would love to see a sports manga of a girls’ or women’s team (give me recs please!).
The art of Sayonara Football is fluid and fast, with action scenes that leap out of the panel. The action varies before the contact with the ball and after contact, creating anticipation either way. The positions of the players as they face off, both physically and on the field, is visually stunning. Reading the actions scenes is almost like watching a ballet performance. The art is so graceful and intricate, and the pacing is fast. It is certainly attention-grabbing.
Sayonara Football is a two-volume manga from Kodansha. You can read a preview of the first volume on Kodansha’s website. The manga is available digitally; I read both volumes through Comixology.
The Prince of Tennis
By Takeshi Konomi
Ryoma is a 12-year-old tennis prodigy competing against high school students. As a younger player, there is a certain amount of know-it-all to his attitude, which makes him different from the other characters on this list. He has a reputation as an outstanding player, the son of a notable talent as well. However, Ryoma’s father’s tennis dreams were crushed with an injury. Ryoma carries the weight of his father’s dream as he moves up in the tennis world.
My favorite thing about Prince of Tennis is the focus on strategy. Tennis is a challenging game, and placement of the volley means everything. Ryoma is not a talented played solely because of physical prowess; he has the mental strategy to make him a truly formidable player for older players. Tennis, unlike basketball, volleyball, and soccer, is both a solo sport and a team sport. Ryoma may be incredible on his own, but he is part of a team. The other players are just as important to Ryoma’s success as his performance on the court.
The art is a little more old school than the previous entries. Prince of Tennis was published in Japan in the late 90s, so some of the fashion is a bit dated now. However, the flow of the artwork, especially during matches, is so much fun. The power behind the hits is conveyed in the hard speed lines, and the trajectory of the shot is easily followed.
These are just a few sports manga recommendations. There are so many more out there featuring all types of sports. What are your favorite sports series?
The featured banner is from Sayonara Football vol 1. Thank you to Viz Media for providing a review copy of Kuroko’s Basketball 2-in-1 volume 1.