Manga allows its readers to approach history from all sorts of fascinating angles, and we'll be exploring some of those angles all of this month. It can be a straightforward retelling of events, fictional extrapolations of real people, fanciful stories in period settings, or like today's choice, a humorous take on world history.
HETALIA, by Hidekaz Himaruya. First published in 2008, and first published in North America in 2010.
In a world where the nations of the world are personified as people, Germany is seeking out Italy during World War I. He's appalled by what he finds, as Italy is a cowardly wimp who is more interested in girls and pasta than conflict of any sort. He latches onto Germany instantly, and in turn the two team up with distant, reserved Japan. This action sets the Allied nations into an uproar...well, no more of one than they create whenever they're forced to be around each other. Hilarity ensues, and no nation past or present is off-limits.
Hetalia is something of an oddity in the manga world, having gotten its start not in a magazine, but as a 4-koma webcomic. Does it still work when you take this sort of material from the web to the printed page? Honestly, it really depends upon the reader.
Hetalia's appeal can depend a lot on your knowledge of world history. Most of the strips and stories stem from events both big and small in history. While it may start out during the World Wars, it quickly abandons that concept to instead bounce about to whatever time period it wants. This does give this series the advantage of moving on once all the jokes have been mined from a particular topic, but it's also a bit disorienting to move from World War II to the Renaissance to the War of Austrian Succession. Some of these events and references are so obscure (or represented so obliquely) that they require footnotes after the strip, something which you'll find throughout the book. Those that are well-read will be well-rewarded, because Himaruya digs deep for trivia for his strips, and they will likely be those who will get most of the jokes.
That being said, this series trades just as much in dumb humor as it does smart history. The vast majority of the jokes and character development center around each nation being big, broad stereotypes of their respective nations. As such, Italy is obsessed with food and sex, America is loud and egocentric, Germany is rigid and militaristic, and the list goes on and on. This is probably the biggest caveat of the whole series; if you are offended by stereotypes, then this is most certainly NOT the manga for you. At the very least, Hetalia can be said to be an equal opportunity offender: no country is spared from scrutiny. Even Japan gets mocked, although he doesn't get nearly the ribbing that some of the Western nations do. Those who are familiar with the animated version may notice that the manga doesn't feature either the heavy amounts of homoeroticism nor the more vulgar humor that the show is known for (depending on whether you watched it subbed or dubbed). It's odd that a series so renowned for its slashiness could be so innocent and goofy in its original form. It's almost enough to distract you from the fact that this is all an extrapolation of World War II.
Jokes are something of a relative term when it comes to Hetalia. Being a 4-koma series, there's not much space to build up to a punchline. At best, the humor is at the level of a mild chuckle. Hetalia's shortness, weak humor and history-hopping can make this a hard series to marathon. Still, it can be clever with its use of history, and those who can get past the stereotypes just might enjoy this humorous take on international politics and culture.
Being a 4-koma series, Himaruya isn't concerned with filling up the page with big, beautiful panels. The character designs are generically cute, but are distinct enough to know which nation is which (well, except for Canada, but no one ever seems to remember Canada). The quality of the art varies wildly from page to page, and I suspect that at least some of these stories were retouched before being published. Some have a more refined artstyle and appear to be professionally inked, but others still retain the softer, cruder lines of a pencil sketch, right down to the extra lines around the frames where he was trying to straighten them out. Mind you, even the cruder looking ones have their charms, as Himaruya does make an effort with the backgrounds as well as some gentle, watercolor-style shading. For what it's worth, these unpolished details give the artwork a certain sort of homespun charm.
Hetalia has the misfortune to be one of Tokyopop's last licenses, seeing only two volumes hit print before they shut down. Amazingly, Tokyopop managed to retain the license and now have reprinted these volumes (as well as more recent ones) through a print-on-demand agreement with online retailer RightStuf. While the content remains the same, there are noticeable differences in the two editions. The RightStuf copies are notably larger and feature better quality paper than the original Tokyopop volumes, but those from Tokyopop's first edition feature color artwork - something that was not retained for the RightStuf copies of the first two volumes. Aside from that, the extras are the same between the two versions - translation notes, character profiles, a foreword from Tokyopop CEO Stu Levy, and a collection of pictures of Hetalia cosplayers from around the world.
Hetalia is a series with little to no middle ground - either you love it or you don't. What camp you find yourself falling into will ultimately depend on how much you value the appeal of bishonen countries, your interest in world history, and your tolerance for non-PC humor.
This series is published by Tokyopop and RightStuf. This series is ongoing in Japan, with 6 volumes available. All 6 have been released and are currently in print.
You can purchase this volume and many more like it through RightStuf.com!
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