Skull Face Bookseller Honda-San Volumes 1-4 Manga Review

Written and drawn by Honda. Translation by Amanda Haley. Lettering by Bianca Pistillo. Published by Yen Press. 

This manga is a collection of first hand stories about working in a Japanese bookstore. The creator and lead character, Honda, retells the inner workings of her manga bookstore. Customer interactions, publishers, shipping, interactions with other employees and so much more. Her bookstore divides manga up into sub sections, which makes a ton of sense, and each employee shown has their own department. To give this manga a unique feel, and maybe to protect some identities, every character has a mask and is named after that same mask. Paper bag, gas mask, rabbit, and of course our titular character, skull face. 

You have to love books to stick it out in a bookstore, and love them even more to want to read about books and bookselling. Thankfully, I am one of those people. I’ve worked in bookstores and now work in a library and I love the world of books. What is coming out, when, how many, why does this publisher always send more than this one, why do these books sell well in this city but not over here? All of the ins and outs. Honda does an amazing job of explaining these things within her world. While I’ve never been to Japan and the only store of similar style to the one in this manga that I have ever been to was a brief run through a Little Japan shopping mall in San Francisco, I understood everything. All of the policies and gears for the bookstore are easily explained, and there are call backs as the series goes on. The shipping and supply chains aren’t quite what Borders was but it does remind me a lot of what my local comic shop goes through every week. 

As much as the inner workings interested me, it’s the interactions with people that made me feel a kinship with Honda and her fellow employees. Overwhelmed by stock, overwhelmed by customers, just overwhelmed by life. But when one employee is down, oftentimes another one is up and is able to raise their fellow retail warrior out of the trenches. Customers can be odd or demanding or both in any language. Inappropriate purchases, vague questions, and so much more give at least some sort of variety and excitement to every day. Even if the reader isn’t interested in the business side of bookselling, any one who has had to work retail will find familiar moments. 

I think the use of masks is a brilliant way not only for Honda, but for any of us to tell our work stories while not getting in trouble. For years I have wondered how to get my own stories out in a way that is accurate but also keeps me out of any legal trouble. This is such a deceptively simple answer, yet it still gets Honda in a bit of trouble at times. 

Finally, this makes me question my assumptions toward manga. While bookstores in the United States will divide books many times – fiction or non fiction, literature or sci-fi or horror or romance and on and on – manga is always kept together. Even graphic novels are just on a shelf alphabetically. At home many of us sort our comics by publisher, or even by genre. Keep all the super hero ones together, then the horror, then the biographies. But never did I think of dividing up manga. This is considered a comedy series. Honda’s co workers cover women’s interest, men’s interest, boy love, certain publishers because they put out so much, game guides, and Honda has the foreign and art books. When I shelve, order, or buy manga it has always just been a catch all “manga” spot in my head. As a comic reader I should know better. That’s unfair to readers and the creators. I will shout from any rooftop that comics shouldn’t ever be assumed to be just one thing. They are a medium to tell any story that anyone desires. All movies aren’t the same, nor all books, or all music. Yet comics are for kids and just superheroes. Or so the general populace assumes. I have read amazing stories of every imaginable genre told in comic format and yet here I am just throwing all the manga together. 

This four volume series is more than just funny and more than just a look into the bookseller life. It is also educational for new or old manga fans.

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