If there's a mangaka who never got a even break on the North American market, it's Ai Morinaga. She made some great comedy manga, but not a single one of them were printed in full, and all of them (including today's selection) now have all fallen in sad obscurity.
DUCK PRINCE (Ahiru no Ojisama?), by Ai Morinaga. First published in 2001, and first published in North America in 2004.
Reiichi is a hopeless case. He's short, pudgy, and ugly, complete with a bad bowl haircut and Coke bottle-thick glasses. His family mocks him, his classmates ignore him, and the only person willing to give him the time of day is the lovely and gentle Yumiko. She thinks he's adorable, even if that's mostly because Reiichi reminds her of her equally odd, ugly dog Mister. Reiichi gets hit by a car while trying to save Mister, and when he awakes he discovers that he's transformed into a beautiful young man. Of course, he's now a beautiful young man with the personality of a hopeless, insecure nerd. Still, now Reiichi might have a chance at winning Yumiko's heart, even if he has to compete with an a ancient prince disguised as a dog and a teacher with ties to the dog prince's past.
Leave it to Ai Morinaga to take something as basic as the ugly duckling story and turn it into a wacky romantic comedy that's more than willing to turn some old tropes on their head.
The big twist here is that the transformation from nerd to bishonen isn't the end of Reiichi's story, but the beginning of it. He's still the same person underneath, and that person is still the same old clueless sap who knows nothing about girls or socializing and everything about gardening and sappy animal dramas. He still has to find within himself a bit of courage and some social graces if he's ever going to get anywhere. Mind you, Yumiko is far from your standard love interest as well. She's not particularly impressed by Reiichi's looks, and since he's using an alias she doesn't connect this new boy to the sweet little nerd she's pining for. She herself is kind of a dork, as she shares most of Reiichi's interests, and she's completely oblivious to the love polygon that's forming around her. Her oblivious is the primary fuel for most of the gags here, as all the men around her compete for her attentions all while trying to keep their true identities under wraps, which soon enough turns everything into one big farce.
Lucky for us, the subplot between these men is just as interesting and fun as Reiichi's attempts at romance. It onto itself is practically a fairy tale, with Mister and the teacher turning out to be caught up in an ages-old battle. It was the teacher, Professor Takamura, who turned a prince into Mister the dog, and in turn it was Mister who turned Reiichi into a bishie. Reiichi now finds himself tasked with helping Mister return to his true form, but he also wants to expose Mister as the dirty dog he is, as he uses his canine form to ogle Yumiko up-close. This subplot keeps things interesting, as it gives them all motivation beyond winning Yumiko and their in-fighting only adds to the comedy. Morinaga balances both of these storylines masterfully, so everything keeps moving forward and neither of them get the opportunity to get boring. Morinaga's also not afraid to let the characters look or act bad but knows just how far to take it, and as such the jokes never descend into cruelty or get too serious.
Duck Prince is a genuinely fun, fast-paced and funny farce. Its characters aren't deep by any means, but she gets a lot of good humor out of their quirks and conflicts and uses them well to tweak a few shoujo conventions, and it's a genuinely good series to read.
Morinaga's art is suitably broad enough to work for a comedy, but also good looking enough to appeal. Her character designs are solid with lots of dark, shining hair and eyes to go around, and those that are meant to look weird like Reiichi and Mister are these gloriously goofy little chibi things with googly eyes. It's all very fluid and lively with lots of broad expressions and action, and it complements the story beautifully.
Morinaga's omakes are funnier and more remarkable than most. The one she includes here is a great example of her well-timed and slightly immature sense of humor, where a boat trip to Okinawa and an encounter with a beautiful man leads to her learning precisely what happens when you flush a toilet on a moving ship.
It's a crying shame that Duck Prince wasn't finished here, because even in its incomplete form it's one of the rare gems of the CPM lineup. It's a hilarious farce with great art and if I had my will I'd rescue this one in a heartbeat.
This series was published by Central Park Media. This series is complete in Japan with 6 volumes available. 3 volumes were published and all are currently out of print.