While there are plenty of comedy manga out there in the world, few of them could be accurately described as a farce, and fewer still could consider themselves as successful at it as today's selection.
SCHOOL RUMBLE (Sukuru Ranburu), by Jin Kobayashi. First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2006.
Tenma Tsukamoto is in love with her classmate Karasuma Oji, and in turn class delinquent Kenji Harmia is in love with Tenma. This love triangle is the heart of an ever-growing web of friends and classmates who find themselves caught in the crossfire of Tenma's and Harima's never-ending and increasingly wacky attempts to win over their respective objet d'amour.
Comedy is a lot harder to pull off than people think it is. Anyone can spout random silly phrases or overreact to the nonsensical things around them, but can steadily produce a series of good gags that work beginning to end that can appeal to a wide audience. This is doubly true for farce, since farce is not only purposefully over-the-top, but often features multiple plot threads happening simultaneously, and it takes keen writing to keep things straight and keep it from all becoming obnoxious. This is triply true for comedy manga, since on top of all these issues, they have to work with only still black-and-white images for their delivery. When you take all of that into consideration, it just makes the fact that School Rumble is so consistently and endearingly funny all that much more of a marvelous feat.
So what is it precisely that makes School Rumble so amusing? Well, it helps that Kobayashi is a skilled enough writer to pull off a farce. Every chapter builds itself upon a single, simple concept - either Tenma is trying to get Karauama's attention or Harima is trying to get Tenma's attention. The details may change depending on time and setting, but that single concept ends up becoming the core to an ever-growing snowball of hilariously bad ideas that one (or both) undertake, building up to the punch-line. It's a simple structure to build a joke upon, but the variety and sheer wackiness of each chapter keeps that joke from ever getting stale.
It also helps that even as Tenma and Harima make utter fools of themselves, it's clear that Kobayashi harbors great affection for them both. In a profile at the end of the volume, Kobayashi outright admits that Harima is his favorite character, and it's easy to see why. Harima is the kind of shonen protagonist who not only gets to indulge in uber-manly street punk stuff, but also gets to be a big goof all in the name of trying to impress a girl, making him both an inspiration and relatable to the young male audience. Still, he doesn't get half the page time that Tenma does, and he also put some care into her as well. It would have been all too easy to make her a simple ditz and leave the joke at that. What makes the difference is that her youthful ignorance is rounded out with loads of energy and a quick and active imagination, as well as getting to see her in more casual settings with her sister Yakumo and her school friends. He also tends to alternate the focus between the two from chapter to chapter, which keeps the balance fair and stories varied.
School Rumble is one of those comedies that focuses more on the characters than the plot. The Tenma-Karasuma-Harima love triangle is the closest thing this manga has to a proper ongoing plot, but it's also far from the only story going on here. With every chapter, the cast expands a little more, and many of them have their own stories or romantic entanglements to deal with. Kobayashi is even willing to pull the narrative breaks a little by writing a chapter or two from Yakumo's perspective. Her stories are a bit of an odd fit even for a series as silly as this. It's not because they tend to be more serious and introspective, but because they bring in a supernatural element by giving Yakumo the ability to hear the thoughts of those who love her. Considering that she is both pretty and popular, you can imagine just how many mental come-ons she overhears. It's not a bad idea on its own, but when plopped into the middle of this wacky comedy it just feels odd and tonally it feels out of place.
Comedy in manga is a hard thing to do well, but School Rumble makes it look positively effortless. Kobayashi knows just how to build up a cast of endearing yet hilarious characters and how to turn the romantic equivalent of a Tom and Jerry cartoon into a never-ending stream of genuinely good gags. It's an act of manga alchemy that's a delight to read and that few can hope to replicate.
One advantage of comedy manga is that it's usually less dependent on good artwork than most. So long as the story is easy to follow and the characters are reasonably attractive, most people will be satisfied. Kobayashi certainly achieves that and much more. The characters are clean and simple, yet distinct and very expressive - a necessity for a manga with a cast as large as this one has. I suspect Kobayashi is a fan of Ken Akamatsu, as Tenma's signature twin pigtails twitch and move in a manner similar to Akamatsu's hair attennae). He definitely makes his preference for Harima apparent in the art, as he clearly savors every opportunity he gets to draw this dramatic, heavily hatched scenes of Harima riding around on his motorcycle or getting into fights. Indeed, he seems to love any opportunity he can get to mess with the angles or the lighting to highlight mood shifts or a shift to a character's inner monologue. At the same time, he also clearly loves drawing all the goofy, over-the-top, or superdeformed reactions that the cast indulges in so often. If anything suffers in comparison, it's the backgrounds. They're not common, and what is there are your standard homerooms and interiors, but it hardly matters when the rest of it is so strong.
It's a shame that this was one of the many series that was dropped during the Del Ray-Kodansha transfer, as School Rumble is one of the few comedy manga that's genuinely funny and remains so even today. While it will sadly never be completed, it's still worth seeking out.
This series was published by Del Ray. This series is complete in Japan with 22 volumes available. 16 volumes were published and all are currently out of print.