4-koma have long struggled to get any sort of foothold in the US. It's easy to see why when so many of them were derivative and dull like today's selection.
LUCKY STAR (Raki Suta), by Kagami Yoshimizu. First published in 2003 and first published in North America in 2009.
Konata, Tsukasa, Miyuki and Kagami are four very different high school girls, but together they united in friendship. Together they deal with ordinary troubles like homework, the correct way to eat a chocolate cornet, or simply trying to deal with the fact that Konata views everything through the lens of video games and anime.
After reading this manga, I'm genuinely baffled how anyone looked at Lucky Star and thought "This should be a show! This'll be a big hit!" The mid 2000s were chock-a-block with a million wannabe Azumanga Daiohs where no more than six girls based around a bunch of otaku-friendly quirks go through high school while enduring a bunch of predictable scenarios that tend to revolve around either the usual series of school events and/or a wackily incompetent teacher. Lucky Star is no exception to that, yet it manages to distinguish itself by being even more pointless and boring than normal.
It's certainly not distinguished by its main cast. All of our four leading girls are little more than personifications of one or two quirks and each of those quirks is hammered into the reader's mind for the sake of a joke. Konata is a hopeless otaku! Miyuki is smart but moe! Kagami is angry and self-conscious! Tsubasa is a ditz! I hope you found those statements hilarious because Yoshimizu clearly thinks so and never develops any of them beyond those points. You better think that Konata's gimmick in particular is the height of hilarity because more so than anyone else, you will see the most of her because she's meant to be the stand-in for the otaku readers. That's why she's so genre-savvy, pervy, and obsessed. She even openly shills the magazine this manga ran in along with the little giveaway discount cards that came with it! Not even Digi Charat shilled this hard, and she was literally a mascot for a game store!
Maybe the one-note main cast would be less aggravating if there was a larger supporting cast to support them or at least to pad things out. While we do see the occasional adult, they are just as much one-trick ponies as the girls. The teacher likes playing video games too! Konata's policewoman cousin is lazy! It goes on from there. There's also no overarching plot to give all of these so-called gags some sort of structure. It doesn't even use the concept of the cycle of the school year to keep things moving along, which most of these 4-komas tend to do. There's an occasional reference, but time just tends to drift along vaguely. There are also some very time-specific gags, particular one where Konata's shows keep getting preempted by the (presumably 2004) Olympics.
Lucky Star's biggest failing is in its delivery of its jokes, such as they are. Good comedy 4-komas live and die by their timing. Some keep thing condensed and make each strip a stand-alone gag. Others will hold on reactions and stretch things out over two or three strips, letting the rhythm rise and fall before delivering the final punchline. Lucky Star tends more towards the former, but it has no idea how to build on the girls' quirks into something resembling an actual joke. Every punchline falls flat, and it's hard to tell how much of this is Yoshimizu's fault and how much of this is due to the absolutely AWFUL localization. This might be one of the most stiff, even mechanical translations I've seen in a professionally published book. Weirder still, there are a few points where they translate an honorific but leave in the original phrase in parenthesis. For example, someone might say "sis (one-chan)" or "ma'am (sensei)." It's needless and distracting, and it makes the whole thing feel like a first draft instead of a finished product. Lord knows that Lucky Star wasn't terribly good to begin with, but Bandai did this weak material no favors and it shows in a big way.
Even for a moe 4-koma, Yoshimizu's character designs are just bizarre. They look more like caricatures or chibis of cliché moe girls, with their crude, squishy little faces and their equally crude, almost semi-deformed reactions. I have a hard time believing even hardened moe fans looking at this and calling them 'cute'. At least all of them are distinct visually. It's not just hairstyles that distinguish each girl, but also the shape of their eyes and other little things like Konata's mole. It's hard to say much more about their designs because we don't see much else of them. This manga is very much a collection of talking heads assembled in flat medium shots. There are also few backgrounds to speak of, so most of the comic takes place in vast limbos distinguished only by grades of screentone. Not even adding color helps much, as there are a few random color pages included. Visually Lucky Star is just as flat and dull as its sense of humor.
My issue with the translation is especially strange when you consider the size of the translation notes guide in the back. It's one of the more thorough one's I've seen, but then I just have to wonder why they left all of these other references in but felt the need to leave the original honorific in place.
Lucky Star is anything but lucky. It's a one-note comedy with no sense of timing and a visual style that's distinct but far from appealing and a terrible translation. Even fans of the show would be better off sticking with that instead of seeking out this series.
This series is published by Viz and formerly by Bandai. This series is ongoing in Japan with 10 volumes available. 8 volumes were published. The physical volumes are out of print, but all 8 volumes are available digitally via Viz.com.