2023 was the year I cemented my love for manga by making it a major part of my workday. So many good series have enjoyed immense fan discourse, but new hits come out by the month. Here I will provide my review of manga and manhwa that dropped in December 2023!
Table of Contents
- Fun Manga to Read with Female Protagonists
- Charming and Fun Manga for Yaoi and Yuri Fans
- Manhwa for Readers Desiring Killer Style
- Bonus from VIZ Signature
A Cascade of Content Courtesy of VIZ Media and Yen Press
I’ve been delighted to review manga this year as I was generously provided wonderful review copies from VIZ Media, and recently Yen Press along with their imprint IZE Press. The result has had the effect not only of showcasing the strengths and appeal of print manga and manhwa. They take up an impressive portion of even the largest book retailers.
But another impressive achievement of this has been to shine the spotlight on series under these publishers that deserve far more exposure. So I’ve been delighted by the recent deluge of content as we close the year, and while some are inevitably not all superstar series, many are worth consideration. Whether you’re wishing your loved one a happy holiday, treating yourself to a good read, or want to wish somebody an especially joyful Monday, here are the series I’ve been able to review for December 2023.
Related: Solo Leveling Episodes 1 & 2 Review
Fun Manga to Read with Female Protagonists
The first batch of reviews was a healthy balance of Yen Press and VIZ Media series along with some highly anticipated Shojo series. These stories feature characters seizing their agency, finding their place in the world, and occasionally finding love.
I May Be a Guild Receptionist, but I’ll Solo Any Boss to Clock Out on Time Vol. 1
Ahh word soup, the first phrase I thought when even seeing this title. This is a case of a series being compelling enough as a concept that the concept just became the name, burying any mystique. I had to search Crunchyroll among similar series with overly syntax-laden names to make sure I didn’t see this one already.
But don’t let my words sound like a poor impression, because once I got past this I found an entertaining, relatable manga. It’s got a medieval fantasy RPG premise that’s all the rage, and its central character is what happens when you put a disgruntled professional’s personality into an NPC. We’ve all been there, asked to go into overtime or pushed into it by the circumstances.
But in the case of Alina Clover, she’s having none of it, having signed on to be a guild receptionist for a comfortable life. If there’s an especially troublesome dungeon boss causing adventurers to tie her time up, she’ll solo the boss like a certain jar-headed Malenia slayer. Does she want to be celebrated as a hero or be invited into the Silver Sword guild? No, she wants to clock out and go home, and any monster who disrupts that for her is not long for this world.
The strengths of this series lie largely in its protagonist, but I found the supporting cast to fall somewhat flat. It’s well-drawn, with decent paneling, and it’s fun for a romp, but it’s not exactly water-cooler fiction. Not that there’s anything wrong with a little fun light reading!
I May Be a Guild Receptionist, but I’ll Solo Any Boss to Clock Out on Time Vol. 1 was released by Yen Press on October 17, 2023.
My Poison Princess Is Still Cute Vol. 1
This one has an endearing premise, with the demon Princess Raffy being so naturally poisonous that she’s considered a biological weapon. If you weren’t won over already by that stunted description, the story opens with her being married off in an attempt to broker peace with humanity. Her groom Loren, however, is perfect for her, not because her poison doesn’t affect him, but because he just reincarnates. Why does the charming knight continue to respawn for the princess who kills him just by being nearby?
He’s in love. It’s as simple as that. Loren is a gem in this, being so accepting finding everything about Raffy adorable, and discovering his boundaries with her shrink. Raffy helps this by meeting him halfway, speaking with her many confidants to understand her developing feelings, and what causes her to emit poison to begin with.
The paneling on this series is something I notice about a lot of the Yen Press review copies I got, being rigidly structured yet easy and approachable. The art has a cartoonish, spritely feel to itself, and Raffy and Loren make for a charming couple who break down boundaries despite being in an arranged marriage. It’s a wholesome story featuring a protagonist whose journey to loving herself leads to her being able to accept affection when she didn’t think it was possible.
My Poison Princess Is Still Cute Vol. 1 was released by Yen Press on December 12, 2023.
Sakura, Saku Vol. 1
This one was impossible to miss, with VIZ Media living rent-free with expertly targeted advertising in this case. Sakura, Saku is a Shojo Beat manga I thoroughly appreciate, with it feeling at times like it’s grasping at a love story, but at other times it feels like a coming-of-age or even just a character study. Why do people do good deeds? Do they do them with the desire of others’ gratitude, or is the simple act of kindness enough of a motivator?
It’s a simple premise, but wonderfully executed. Saku Fujigaya was sick to the point of being ready to pass out, only for a guardian angel to look out for her before she collapsed in a compromising spot. When she woke up in the hospital, protector by her unknown protector Ryosuke Sakura, she quickly sought a way to thank him, while taking his kindness to heart, paying it forward to the people around her.
Her changes are noticeable, and when she gets led thanks to Haruki Sakura, Ryosuke’s brother, she tries to get him to bring the letter to Ryosuke. But she quickly learns that Haruki is a wise and warm confidant beneath his blunt exterior. In truly getting to know the people with whom she bonds on this journey of personal discovery, Saku might discover beautiful friendships or possibly more.
While the paneling and presentation are certainly cinematic, what I admire about this manga is the expressiveness of its characters. Something about blushing faces in Shojo manga hits differently. Seeing Saku’s persistent state of wonder, gratitude, and pensiveness juxtaposes nicely with Haruki’s otherwise expressionless face, belied by his eyes beckoning you to an ocean of depth. This was also a total page-turner and I realized pretty quickly that while it’s certainly a potentially solid love story, I also love how much potential Saku and Haruki have to continue to grow.
Sakura, Saku Vol. 1 was released by VIZ Media on November 14, 2023.
Neighborhood Story Vol. 1
Neighborhood Story existed long before creator Ai Yazawa’s iconic Nana series, and it hit the presses back in 1995. However, English-language readers couldn’t enjoy this thoughtful, layered storytelling until December 2023. Knowing of Nana’s popularity, with my Shojo-reading friends raving about it, I had to give Neighborhood Story a fair run.
It’s fantastic. Often I find popular manga, especially from the 90s and 2000s, guilty of giving us great protagonists and supporting characters, but forgetting about the latter as their runs go on. But in Neighborhood Story, I found Mikako Kouda and her childhood friend Tsutomu Yamaguchi to be an entertaining and thoughtful love story. Still, suddenly their friends, former romantic partners, and family felt so essential. They provided unique insight, and it felt like they noticed along with the readers when Mikako was in emotional turmoil.
When the story shifts to characters like Mariko or Yusuke, it doesn’t feel like B-plots, and their journeys feel equally compelling. This is what a proper ensemble cast should feel like, and Shonen creators should take notes on how it balances its cast. Between each series in this segment, I found no two mangas looked alike, and not in the mere sense of different artists.
Neighborhood Story has an extremely distinctive art style that thrives when it hyper-fixates on characters in close-ups, with Mikako’s thoughtful, spunky, pouty expressions popping off the page. Platonic and romantic love often overlap via frustrating nuances, and it’s the type of tension that feels far more genuine and relatable than will-they-won’t-they sitcom antics. It doesn’t hurt that the book itself is as expressive as its star, a hot pink paperback with heart-shaped flourishes perfect for fans of quintessential 1990s Shojo manga.
Neighborhood Story Vol. 1 was released by VIZ Media on December 5, 2023.
Charming and Fun Manga for Yaoi and Yuri Fans
Yen Press had an impressive slate here, with several series varying in tone and tension featured. This is also not the only instance of me reviewing BL property this year, and I hope to bring those numbers up in 2024, as Sasaki and Miyano were a gem.
I Don’t Know Which Is Love Vol. 1
This was the first Yuri manga I ever read, and my close friend pointed out this one to me when I sent her pictures of YP’s manga display at New York Comic Con. I had to check it out, and quickly discovered a fun romp inside!
I Don’t Know Which Is Love is a Yuri harem, essentially, where Mei Soraike enrolls in college with the clear ambition of getting a girlfriend. However, she quickly finds out that there are a ton of attractive women, including fellow students and even a teacher! It’s possibly the most predictable template possible for a harem series, but Mei’s character is plenty of fun, being genuinely flustered by all of her prospective partners.
Virtually every interaction Mei has digs her deeper into a romantic hole where she can’t decide for herself on a partner. It knows how to draw the reader in to wonder who her genuine partner is, with just enough hints at who it wants us to expect. Each character has fascinating gimmicks that bring them closer to Mei, including things like being attracted to her voice, being a mentor to her while allowing her to express her sexuality, or just outright sharing a bed with her. It’s definitely at the end of romantic fantasies, and it’s difficult to say how it’ll end, but it’s a cute, casual read.
I Don’t Know Which Is Love Vol. 1 was released by Yen Press on August 22, 2023.
Minato’s Laundromat Vol. 1
This one had a bit more of a familiar BL structure, with its two male leads being attracted to one another, and internalizing it for a predictably frustrating amount of time. But Akira Minato has a justifiable reason to bottle it up: he’s in his 30s, and his crush, Shintaro Katsuki, is in high school!
The result is a significantly more complicated bond between the two. Shintaro develops his attraction to Akira, while Akira conceals it due to everything from their age gap to dealing with some previous unresolved issues. The romantic tension in this series is the most palpable of any of the romance manga I was sent, but it’s also the most troubling.
Yet, Shintaro’s connection to Akira never quite crosses the line, to Akira’s credit. Their sexuality is quickly revealed to each other, and I’ll say that Akira’s fixations go on the gratuitous side, but it’s tough to say what’s to be expected when you’re bottling up your sexual feelings for long enough. The tension erupts near the end of the volume, sure, but there’s enough to have readers wonder what’ll happen for the pair.
What sets this volume apart is its lovely bonus manga and even a small light novel portion in the back by Yuzu Tsubaki, the original author. But what I find from continuing to read these BL stories is that seemingly no other manga genre is as potent when it comes to two characters, looking each other in the eyes, with tension thick enough to cut with a knife while they lay their flirtatious proverbial cards on the table.
Minato’s Laundromat Vol. 1 was released by Yen Press on October 17, 2023.
Cheerful Amnesia Vol. 1
This one is fun as it features two women who are already in a committed relationship, but with a hook; Mari winds up taking care of Arisa when amnesia strikes, wiping 3 years from her memory. Despite the pair living together, Arisa has to adjust to all of it, with everything being a novelty.
The result is wholesome as hell. Mari is perfectly accommodating to Arisa who is just in awe of the two being together. Arisa is innocent but in curious way where she wants to rediscover her sexuality with her lover, but often has to pace herself. But the element that sets this apart from being too similar to 50 First Dates is the fact that it’s a Yuri romance.
See, later on in the series Mari laments her fears upon learning Arisa lost her memory. She feared she wouldn’t be accepted as her partner, as if their mutual attraction wouldn’t last. But Arisa is steadfast and loyal to her girlfriend, despite getting incredibly shy and overwhelmed when the two express affection or intimacy. It reads like a collection of comic strips or short stories, making it easy not to get lost in the plot. It’s adorable, a breezy read, and saccharine in a good way.
Cheerful Amnesia Vol. 1 was released by Yen Press on October 24, 2023.
Manhwa for Readers Desiring Killer Style
2023 was the year I finally got to talk about manhwa and Korean print comics. It’s been a fascination of mine, and with Yen Press’ wonderful IZE Press imprint supplying us with fantastic books, I knew I’d get a chance to showcase some of my favorite reads. Sadly, I’m not able to review some of their most talked-about series like The Horizon just yet, but I did get to check out some truly special series nonetheless.
Not-Sew-Wicked Stepmom Vol. 1
This premise is an interesting blend of Isekai and Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Not-Sew-Wicked Stepmom brings us a reincarnated Abigail Friedkin, former evil stepmother of Snow White (or Princess Blanche in this case) who is far less evil this time around. Inhabited by Lily Lee, a fashion designer from the present, Abigail wishes to correct the course of her stepdaughter’s upbringing and bring a smile to the girl’s face.
The gimmick here is that Abigail still outwardly presents with her usual traits making it hard to trust her. She’s got a terrifying smile, a reputation for cruelty that precedes her, and a husband who is mercilessly untrusting and cold toward her. It’s an uphill battle for Abigail then, as she tries to make Blanche happy while winning back the trust of her servants.
Not-Sew-Wicked Stepmom is well-executed but does have a few distracting flaws, namely the backgrounds. It seems accurate to claim that Mo9Rang isn’t very good at drawing detailed backdrops, so you’ll notice most shots focus entirely on the characters with the environment almost always blurred. This is a style choice, but it feels limiting when set in such an elegant, noble background. I’ll say it first, I can’t draw backgrounds from scratch either, and I arguably can’t draw at all, but it’s nonetheless a weaker aspect of the series. However, seeing Abigail win over Blanche’s heart over time? Priceless.
Not-Sew-Wicked Stepmom Vol. 1 was released by IZE Press on August 22, 2023.
Dark Moon: The Blood Altar Vol. 1
I’ve found that many of the manhwa I review tend to feature characters struggling to find acceptance in the face of some body-altering gimmick. Dark Moon: The Blood Altar is precisely no different, introducing vampires to the mix.
The story starts strong, with the main character Sooha withdrawing further into herself as her childhood friend, Chris, is being buried with bite marks on his neck, and a stake through his heart. It’s striking, and also super frustrating because that’s the most interesting part of the story before it all-too-quickly jumps to the present where we see Sooha going to a new boarding school.
The school explicitly forbids vampires from attending, which is good news for Sooha, because she tells her new classmate, Heli. You’ll never guess his secret, and if his otherworldly eye color and handsome appearance aren’t enough of a tip-off, I won’t say any more. I appreciate that Sooha’s story draws her closer to Heli and his fellow vampires, none of whom wish to reveal their secret to Sooha, but find this story doesn’t have as good of a flow.
Despite vampires being seen as a clear and present danger in the beginning, that intensity screeches to a halt as the story spends extra time padding out the ensemble cast introductions. 7 secret vampires along with Sooha, whose own powers are concealed for fear of being revealed as a vampire, make for an interesting dynamic. Heli’s chemistry with Sooha is engaging, and supporting characters like Shion are a hoot, but beyond a visually attractive series, I find this to be a slower burn and hope that Volume 2 picks up some steam beyond predictable vampires vs. werewolves drama.
Dark Moon: The Blood Altar Vol. 1 was released by IZE Press on December 12, 2023.
Overgeared Vol. 1
Maybe I’m just the target audience because despite this (and other series in this list) strongly resembling Solo Leveling, I LOVED Overgeared. It is your usual fare, a VRMMORPG player who isn’t overly capable but wishes to make a living as a famous player of the game discovers a life-changing quest.
Shin Youngwoo is a ‘Satisfy’ player who, despite his love for the game, was nothing special in real life or the game. This was the case until an anomaly in the software turned his quest into a metamorphosis when he underwent a class change to become the successor to a legendary classman. It also reset his level to 1 before he was instantly killed in the game, dropping him to Level -1, without the stat penalties resulting in him being able to grow at a better rate than anybody else.
This, essentially, is a power fantasy, but in a more unique sense, it’s a “power gamer” fantasy where Shin can chart a new path for himself. He’s able to quickly learn to craft masterwork items to sell in the in-game economy and make fat stacks, while potentially making amazing gear to carry into battle. It doesn’t hurt that Shin is truly likable and takes advantage of this clever premise, turning it from a more generic Isekai story into a clever story for RPG fans to root for, with this being a personal favorite of mine.
Overgeared Vol. 1 was released by IZE Press on October 24, 2023.
Omniscient Reader’s Viewpoint Vol. 1
While Overgeared was the “power gamer” fantasy and Solo Leveling was the OP Hero’s Journey, I like to think of Omniscient Reader’s Viewpoint as the “rules lawyer” fantasy. It stars Dokja Kim as an office worker and web novel enthusiast whose favorite series has him as its only reader. He comes across the final chapter and soon finds himself contacted by the creator to thank him, where the story takes a turn.
After being contacted about the story becoming paid content at 7 PM despite it having such poor readership, Dokja sees the world devolve into bedlam. Moreover, it resembles events from the book so closely that Dokja realizes the book he was reading, “Three Ways to Survive the Apocalypse” has bled into the real world. As the only reader, he therefore had insight into the life-threatening game imposed upon humanity, along with all of its rules.
Dokja turns from a meek salaryman into a clever and ruthless strategist. When faced with a life-or-death choice, he brilliantly bucks the notion that he’d have to take innocent lives to fit the demands of TWSA’s strange godly creatures. Fantasy has bled into reality on an epic scale, and while it feels similar to many other manhwa with its depiction of RPG mechanics in the real world, it still feels unique.
It’s possibly the most blood-soaked manhwa on this list, but the action-packed visuals and premise of a man with intimate knowledge and rules of the future can forge his destiny are among the most compelling reads yet.
Omniscient Reader’s Viewpoint Vol. 1 was released by IZE Press on December 12, 2023.
Jungle Juice Vol. 2
I will open by saying this: if you haven’t read Jungle Juice, it is a ‘must-read.’ This was possibly the first series to jump out at me when I started looking into covering it, and there are several factors to credit here. I’m a Western reader, growing up initially on Western comics with a love for Spider-Man and X-Men, you know, *chuckle* the indies. But Jungle Juice scratches the itch I have for both of those series, along with all-time favorites like Animal Man.
Jungle Juice’s second volume continues Suchan’s journey as he learns to control his dragonfly powers. In this volume, he and his class are increasingly keen on performing well and protecting each other from the threats of ominous figures like “The Breeder” and we get treated to significant character-driven stories. Huijin’s story was a treat to behold, where we finally see the source of her powers, and I must say, it’s the most compelling, most awesome interpretation of the strengths of a certain infamous arthropod.
But beyond that, even just the small interactions with minor characters help us see significant growth. Suchan’s rigid desire to be “normal” again is chipped away at when he is faced with a child’s perspective on dragonflies and their roles in nature. It’s wholesome yet factual, and the “did you know” energy feels like a genuine, proper channeling of a child’s voice, making Suchan feel better about himself. The acceptance angle is solid in this manhwa, and this, along with his budding affection for Huijin, makes him a joy to watch.
But the action. THE ACTION. This manhwa is full of killer panels where the characters channel their bug-related powers, or complex, into something that feels like a truly iconic modern Shonen manga should be. Seeing Suchan channel his furiously glowing Compound Eyes in his fits of rage is intense. It smartly interprets more bugs and their characteristics, showcasing characters each with unique strengths and abilities. It’s not just super-strength in play. We’re talking razor-sharp barbs from a Goliath Birdeater, or the immense strength and durable chitin of an Emperor Scorpion. It’s clever and feels incredibly fresh.
Everybody has a signature attack they begin to develop, and the posing, along with vivid color and raw, primal emotion driving many scenes, makes it a delight to read. Jungle Juice is my favorite action manhwa, but it’s also among my favorite current comics in general, and I urge any fans reading this to check it out. You’ll also be excited to learn it’s part of a larger ‘Super String Universe’!
Takopi’s Original Sin: An Emotionally Devastating Manga Story from Taizan5
My last review of this feature will discuss Takopi’s Original Sin. Sitting at just over 400 pages, this story was a cautionary Shonen series despite clearly being more of a Seinen read. An adorable interplanetary octopus who adopts the name Takopi wants nothing more than to make the humans he encounters happy. It’s in doing this that we see the unintentional, relentlessly cruel stream of events he unleashes.
Takopi learns a harsh lesson about how intentions don’t always negate results. His life’s purpose is to make others happy, at least for humans, this occasionally means giving into our misery to properly process trauma. While it was sweet and endearing, Takopi attempted and failed to make humans happy in this story, and with the help of some alien gadgets, he even had access to do-overs.
But this created a brutal causal loop, a bit of a trope in modern fiction where he continuously failed despite countless attempts. Where the series differentiates from others is the diabolical plot developments that cause that loop to snap. The series goes to some truly dark places but is remarkably heartfelt and will hit readers like a truck. But finishing this story can be oddly therapeutic.
The story is not the first to approach such dark subject matter. The film Mean Creek comes to mind, especially with its unflinching portrayal of bullying, misery, complex moral decisions, and death. But as a manga, you’re given the freedom to approach it at your pace and come back to it however slowly you need to. But I strongly recommend it, as the strongest collected story I’ve seen perhaps all year.
Takopi’s Original Sin was released by VIZ Signature on November 21, 2023.
I adore manga, manhwa, and print comics in general as a storytelling medium. They can be as challenging or as thought-provoking as any print novel, and the complex art within is always a nice bonus. I look eagerly forward to talking more about my favorite manga going into 2024, and I strongly suggest you consider the series featured on this list if you’re looking for something new!
These reviews couldn’t have been possible without the help of VIZ Media and Yen Press, who have generously supplied review copies of each series featured here.